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West Virginia Accuses Catholic Diocese Of Covering Up Clergy Abuse


It has become an all too familiar headline - allegations of a Catholic diocese that has systematically covered up sexual abuse. This time, though, authorities are taking a different approach to prosecute the crimes. The state of West Virginia is suing the state's Catholic diocese and its former bishop. And the man who brought that suit is the attorney general of West Virginia, Patrick Morrisey. And he joins us now.

Thank you so much for being with us this morning.

PATRICK MORRISEY: Hey, thanks so much for having us on. We appreciate that's a very important issue in West Virginia and, obviously, across the country.

MARTIN: Right, so let's get into this. Your suit says that the former bishop of this diocese, which we should note is the only Catholic diocese in the state - Michael Bransfield is his name - that he knowingly employed pedophiles. Over what period of time?

MORRISEY: So just to step back for a moment, back in September of 2018, after the Pennsylvania grand jury report came out identifying many priests in that state, we started to look at the number of priests that might be impacted in West Virginia, where there was credible evidence where there might be criminal wrongdoing and where there might be improper activity. And we started to determine what the impact might be on West Virginia. We then had a six-month investigation. And we started to look at a lot of information evidence. It does go back many decades in nature. So what we did yesterday is we filed a lawsuit in Wood County. And we alleged that the diocese knowingly employed pedophiles and failed to conduct adequate background checks for those working at the diocese's schools and camps, all without disclosing that danger to parents who were purchasing the services for their children.

In other words, when you have priests and individuals within the Catholic schools and within the camps, you have a duty - if you say you're going to provide a safe environment, you have a duty to provide that safe environment. That's the nature of our claim. We filed that - this was a - the series of activities that we lay out in the complaints literally go back in time for many decades up through - I think our last claim goes through 2013. And we believe that this - it was - these activities were prevalent, that the Catholic Church was - were covering up, concealing and denying, really, that it's been harboring child-molesting priests for a long time.

MARTIN: Let me ask you, though - not to diminish those details at all.

MORRISEY: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: But let me ask you. This is, though, a civil suit.


MARTIN: This is not a criminal suit.

MORRISEY: Yeah, that's important. It is important to know. It's a civil suit. And it's a civil suit because our state has a consumer protection law, which really means that consumers are protected. When they pay for an item or service under the law, they get to get the benefit of that promise or service. And we're saying that the Catholic Church did not fulfill that promise. Now, people may say, why are you doing a consumer complaint? Why aren't you following through with a criminal complaint?

MARTIN: Right.

MORRISEY: The answer is, that's another remedy that's available via local prosecutors. We don't have that authority within the attorney general's office. But then we refer those types of matters to the local prosecutors. And we certainly do that.

MARTIN: But...

MORRISEY: But it's also important that we make sure that we say, if you're the church or schools, that you have to step forward and offer that product and meet your promise.

MARTIN: Right. But we should clarify that as your suit goes forward, I mean, essentially, there will not be criminal - at this stage - criminal repercussions for the former bishop, Michael Bransfield.

MORRISEY: Well, I think it's preliminary, at this time, to talk about what the criminal sanctions will be for any individual because, first of all, that's not the call of the state attorney general. That's actually - everything's going to be left to the local authorities. So we know - and we're not going to speak about it on this call - but that there are going to be multiple referrals related to the list of individuals that were originally publicized back in - by the church back in October of 2018.

MARTIN: So you can see some criminal charges coming down the pike is what you're saying.

MORRISEY: Well, yeah. We're not going to specify the details of who they may be. We're going to leave that to the local prosecutors. And, obviously, that's an ongoing process. But the point is that this particular matter is clearly a civil matter.

MARTIN: Let me just briefly ask, do you think this will set precedent, that you are going at this in this way with a civil suit? Can this set a precedent for other states?

MORRISEY: I think the real goal is we want transparency for the church. We think it benefits the church and the parishioners to reinstitute the public trust. And we want to make sure that the victims are - their needs are going to be addressed...


MORRISEY: ...And that all of the improper activities that were occurring over a long period of time...


MORRISEY: ...That has to come to an end. That's the goal, rather than any precedent.

MARTIN: West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, thank you for your time, sir.

MORRISEY: Thanks so much - appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.