W.Va. Suit Accuses Diocese of Knowingly Employing Pedophiles

Mar 19, 2019

Updated on Mar. 19, 2019 at 3:12 p.m.

A Catholic diocese and its former bishop in West Virginia knowingly employed pedophiles and failed to conduct adequate background checks on camp and school workers, a lawsuit filed Tuesday by the state attorney general charges.

The suit by Attorney General Patrick Morrisey against the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and Bishop Michael Bransfield comes about a week after church officials barred Bransfield from priestly duties following an investigation into claims that he sexually harassed adults and committed financial improprieties.

"The Catholic Church has been covering up, concealing and denying that it's harbored child-molesting priests for a long time, including right here in West Virginia," Morrisey said at a news conference.

The suit alleges the diocese and Bransfield chose to cover up arguably criminal behavior and claims the diocese employed admitted sexual abusers and priests credibly accused of child sexual abuse without adequate background checks.

In one decades-old instance cited in the lawsuit, Rev. Victor Frobas, who was forced out of the Philadelphia seminary system because of a credible accusation of child sexual abuse, was made the director of a summer youth camp owned by the diocese. He was then accused of sexually abusing children at that post and, following a leave of absence, was later assigned to work as a chaplain at Wheeling Central Catholic High School, the lawsuit said. In 1987, Frobas was indicted for molesting two boys at a parish in suburban St. Louis. He pleaded guilty, served about two years and then died in 1993, according to the lawsuit.

"We believe an important first step for the diocese is to come clean with what it knows," Morrisey said. "The church should open its files to the public and disclose what happened with every credible allegation of sexual abuse that was brought to the diocese's attention, while protecting the identity of victims and their families."

Morrisey said the case was brought under the state's consumer credit and protection act. He said his office is in the process of referring individual cases to local prosecutors.

A diocese spokesman didn't return a voicemail message, and no one responded to a voicemail left with a phone number listed for Bransfield.

The Vatican announced that Pope Francis accepted Bransfield's resignation in September and appointed Baltimore Archbishop William Lori to take over the Wheeling-Charleston diocese. Bransfield had been implicated in a 2012 case against Philadelphia priests accused of sexual abuse, but he denied abusing anyone.

Last week, Catholic Church officials said they were imposing ministerial restrictions on Bransfield pending the Holy See's final assessment on the investigation into the claims in West Virginia.

A Catholic high school in Wheeling, West Virginia, voted recently to remove Bransfield's name from a gym. His name also has been removed from a care center at Wheeling Hospital.

Tim Lennon, president of the board of directors of the national nonprofit group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, applauded the attorney general's suit.

"It holds those people — those criminals — accountable and those who are complicit in covering up for those criminals, accountable," he said.