WATCH | Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston files motion to dismiss lawsuit

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WHEELING, W.Va. (WV MetroNews/WSAZ/AP) -- UPDATE 7/5/19 @ 2:39 p.m.
The West Virginia attorney general is accusing the Catholic diocese of attempting to 'sidestep transparency' with its efforts to dismiss a case by the prosecutor's office.

Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston Arch Bishop William Lori released a video Friday in response to the allegations against former Bishop Michael Bransfield.

The Parkersburg News and Sentinel reports Patrick Morrisey's comments came on Wednesday after the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston filed an amended motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

The suit accuses the diocese and former bishop Michael Bransfield of knowingly hiring pedophiles and not conducting background checks on school and summer camp employees.

The diocese is reeling from scandals that include accusations of sexual and financial misdeeds that led to Bransfield's resignation.

Wednesday's filing by the diocese says Morrisey has no legal authority to file suit under the state's Consumer Credit and Protection Act.

UPDATE 6/7/19 @ 2:20 p.m.
The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston released a video Friday in response to the allegations against former Bishop Michael Bransfield.

Arch Bishop William Lori begins the video by saying, "My dear sisters and brothers in Christ, the release of information related to the preliminary investigation into allegations against former Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston Bishop Michael Bransfield has caused tremendous pain for the church in West Virginia where I have served as apostolic administrator for these past eight months."

The reverend said he has been working for many months to revive good practices in the Diocese after Bransfield created an "unhealthy culture." He said they are putting safeguards in place to "prevent abuses like this from happening again."

Lori explained that he was asked to conduct an investigation on behalf of the Holy See, and the five-month investigation found that allegations against Bransfield of sexual harassment against adults are credible. The investigation also determined Bransfield "engaged in a pattern of excessive and inappropriate spending, and that he misused church funds for personal benefit on things such as personal travel, dining, liquor, luxury items, gifts."

A report published Wednesday afternoon in the Washington Post provides additional details about the investigation, saying Bransfield gave cash gifts totaling more than $350,000 to fellow clergymen, including those he was allegedly mistreating.

"Friends, there is no excuse, nor adequate explanation, that will satisfy the troubling question of how Bishop Bransfield's behavior was allowed to continue for as long as it did without the accountability that we must require for those that have been entrusted with so much, both spiritual and material, as bishops, and pastors."

Rev. Lori said he himself received gifts from Bransfield over the years that he "took to be gifts from him that were personal." He said he received the gifts mostly on holidays and special occasions, but the total value was $7,500. Lori said he returned the full amount to the Diocese after learning about Bransfield's actions. He also said he asked that the money be donated to Catholic charities.

The report did not include the names of the clergymen, including Lori's. In the video response, he says, at the time, he thought it would be a "distraction" to name some of the people who received gifts from Bransfield. He said the investigative team did not object to that, but if he could do it over again, he would ask that the names be included.

"I do ask you humbly to pray for and to do all that you can to assist us in working toward the healing that's so needed in these difficult days," said Lori. "We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted from the urgent work of the faith, nor from our commitment to living and spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. At the same time, we will not relent in our determined efforts to bring about the reform and renewal of the church and to restore the credibility, confidence, and trust of the faithful in those of us who were charged with the awe-inspiring responsibility to lead, shepherd, and most of all to serve with true Christ-like humility, care, and concern for others."

You can watch the video for Lori's entire response.

UPDATE 6/6/19 @ 1:35 p.m.
Former Wheeling-Charleston Bishop Michael Bransfield regularly sexually harassed young priests he oversaw and committed financial improprieties during his 13 years of leading the Catholic Church in West Virginia.

The findings come from an investigation commissioned by the apostolic administrator of the Diocese and released in a letter to Catholic Church priests and church members Wednesday afternoon.

The letter written by Rev. William E. Lori, the Archbishop of Baltimore, who has served as Wheeling-Charleston Diocese apostolic administrator since Bransfield’s resignation last September, details the results of a five-month investigation by a five-member lay investigative team made up of both Catholics and non-Catholics.

On Thursday, WSAZ reached out to the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese for a full copy of the report. The diocese issued the following statement:

"The report you requested belongs to the Holy See and is part of their investigation into the allegations against Bishop Bransfield. Because that process is not concluded it is not possible to obtain the report."

Lori said after dozens of interviews with those who worked closely with Bransfield, it was determined the allegations of sexual harassment of adults were credible.

“The team uncovered a consistent pattern of sexual innuendo, and overt suggestive comments and actions toward those over whom the former bishop exercised authority,” Lori said in Wednesday’s letter.

Lori said there was no conclusive evidence that Bransfield, 75, participated in sexual misconduct with minors.

According to Lori, the investigation also found Bransfield engaged in excessive and inappropriate spending including expensive renovations to residences in Wheeling and Charleston.

“The investigation further found that Bishop Bransfield misused Church funds for personal benefit on such things as personal travel, dining, liquor, gifts and luxury items,” Lori said.

A report published Wednesday afternoon in the Washington Post, 18 minutes after Lori released the letter to the church community, provides additional details about the investigation saying Bransfield gave cash gifts totaling more than $350,000 to fellow clergymen including those he was allegedly mistreating.

According to The Post, which was able to obtain the full investigative report, the cash gifts followed sexual harassment complaints from “younger male clerical assistants.”

Archbishop Lori was one of higher ranking members of the church to receive money from Bransfield. He disclosed that in Wednesday’s letter.

“In the spirit of full disclosure, I feel it necessary to acknowledge that I was periodically a recipient of financial gifts in varying amounts by Bishop Bransfield for various occasions over the years, including my installation as Archbishop of Baltimore in 2012 and annually at Christmas. These gifts totaled $7,500. In light of what I have come to learn of Bishop Bransfield’s handling of diocesan finances, I have returned the full amount to the Diocese and have asked that it be donated to Catholic Charities,” Lori wrote.

The Post, citing the investigative report, says Bransfield spent $2.4 million of the church’s money on travel and many of the trips were personal.

“Bransfield and several subordinates spent an average of nearly $1,000 a month on alcohol, it says. The West Virginia diocese paid $4.6 million to renovate Bransfield’s church residence after a fire damaged a single bathroom. When Bransfield was in the chancery, an administrative building, fresh flowers were delivered daily, at a cost of about $100 a day — almost $182,000 in all,” The Post reported.

The Post talked to Bransfield and he denied the allegations, saying many were trying to destroy his reputation.

Although Lori’s letter to the Catholic Church in West Virginia Wednesday says there was no conclusive evidence of sexual misconduct between Bransfield and minors, there were allegations from adult men.

According to the Washington Post, “The report cites nine men in the Wheeling-Charleston diocese who accused Bransfield of touching or groping them, kissing or exposing himself to them or of commenting on their bodies. Diocesan leaders witnessed Bransfield’s “predatory” behavior toward altar servers, behavior troubling enough that one church leader tried to make sure no altar server was left alone with him, the report says.”

Lori also announced he’s putting the Diocese home for the bishop in Wheeling up for sale immediately.

“The home, replete with many original furnishings, was purchased from Linsly Institute in 1963 for $63,000.00 by the late Bishop Joseph H. Hodges and has served since that time as the residence of four bishops of Wheeling-Charleston. It will serve this purpose no longer,” Lori wrote.

Lori announced the conclusion of the investigation back in March but did not release the report. He said it had to be reviewed by the Holy See. He did announce sanctions against Bransfield at that time.

“I have directed that Bishop Bransfield is not authorized to exercise any priestly or episcopal ministry within the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston,” Lori said.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey released a statement Wednesday it’s time for the Diocese to release the full report.

“While we appreciate the fact that our investigation and lawsuit is causing the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese to disclose new improprieties about Bishop Bransfield, we believe it is imperative that the Diocese immediately disclose its investigative report about the Bishop.
“It’s time to come clean and release the Bransfield report – and no longer hide pertinent information from our office and the public. Significantly, much of the information being released by the Diocese never would have come to light, if we didn’t issue subpoenas, investigate and ultimately file suit.

“The Diocese did not issue its list of initially 31, now 40, credibly accused priests until after issuance of our first subpoena in the fall of 2018, and today’s disclosure comes approximately two weeks after the filing of our amended complaint.

“Now is the time for full disclosure. I repeat my call for the Diocese to stop fighting our efforts to get to the bottom of the sexual abuse scandal, come clean and end the secrecy – including release of the full Bransfield report,” Morrisey said.

The group SNAP, The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, also released a statement Wednesday from the group’s Midwest Regional Leader Judy Jones:

“We at SNAP applaud the brave victims for coming forward and getting Bishop Bransfield’s wrongdoings exposed and stopped.

After reading the letter from Bishop Lori regarding the church’s investigation into Bishop Bransfield’s accusations of sexual harassment, we feel that Law Enforcement should get involved and do an investigation into Bransfield and the Wheeling-Charleston diocese.

We also are still wondering what is the punishment for Bransfield and what will happen to him? We feel he should never work in any diocese again or be near children or vulnerable adults. Let’s not forget his allegations of sexual abuse of minors in Philadelphia.

The church officials of the Wheeling-Charleston diocese should reach out to any others to come forward and report any kind of abuse to law enforcement.”

To see the full version of the letter released by the Wheeling-Charleston diocese, click on the Related Documents.



UPDATE 5/21/19 @ 6:30 p.m.
The West Virginia attorney general filed new claims Tuesday to a lawsuit he filed in March against the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese.

The lawsuit alleges the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese knowingly hired pedophiles, failed to conduct background checks, and lacked transparency about what was happening behind closed doors.

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey's office announced an amended complaint Tuesday that includes new claims that the church failed to conduct background checks in Kanawha and Cabell counties and report abuse.

The office is alleging the Diocese "failed to publicly report allegations of a Catholic school teacher abusing a teenage student in Kanawha County."

According to Morrisey's office, there was an internal investigation in 2006 at a school in Kanawha County. Morrisey says a teacher allegedly "gained the student's trust with alcohol and prescription drugs, before multiple instances of sexual abuse on and off school property." However, due to an alleged nondisclosure policy at the Diocese, these allegations were never publicly reported.

The amended complaint also says a Catholic school in Kanawha County did not perform background checks on as many as 22 employees and volunteers between August 2007 and May 2008.

A representative with the Diocese released a statement, saying in part, "The new allegations filed today contain factual inaccuracies that are not included in the Attorney General's prior complaint but which are, however, based in large part on information that the Diocese previously provided the Attorney General's office."

Morrisey says the new evidence proves they were not conducting background checks, "You can't say one thing to the public, that you are going to be performing background checks, and not follow through. That is not acceptable."

The release continued saying, "In the strongest terms, we deny the allegation that initial background checks were not conducted on school employees, as the amended complaint contends. We can only surmise that the Attorney General's office has not thoroughly reviewed the information which has been provided by Diocesan officials to his office."

The Diocese also says they have a zero tolerance policy for abuse.

While these allegations still have to be proven in court, Morrisey says he hopes church leaders confess to the allegations, "The most important thing everyone could do now is to come clean, to be transparent, acknowledge the mistakes, and move forward."

This is a developing story. Keep checking the WSAZ app for the latest information.



UPDATE 5/21/19 @ 12:21 p.m.
The West Virginia attorney general is adding new claims to a lawsuit that alleges the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese knowingly hired pedophiles, failed to conduct background checks, and lacked transparency about what was happening behind closed doors.

A civil complaint filed in March alleges the Diocese and its bishops intentionally covered up "arguably criminal behavior of child sexual abuse." The complaint includes examples of the Diocese knowingly employing sexual abusers and priests accused of child sexual abuse. It also alleges that the Diocese hired people without adequate background checks.

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey's office announced an amended complaint Tuesday that includes new claims that the church failed to conduct background checks in Kanawha and Cabell counties and report abuse.

The office is alleging the Diocese "failed to publicly report allegations of a Catholic school teacher abusing a teenage student in Kanawha County."

According to Morrisey's office, there was an internal investigation in 2006 at a school in Kanawha County. Morrisey says a teacher allegedly "gained the student’s trust with alcohol and prescription drugs, before multiple instances of sexual abuse on and off school property." However, due to an alleged nondisclosure policy at the Diocese, these allegations were never publicly reported.

The amended complaint also says a Catholic school in Kanawha County did not perform background checks on as many as 22 employees and volunteers between August 2007 and May 2008.

In addition to the complaints in Kanawha County, Morrisey has added a complaint out of Cabell County to the lawsuit. The attorney general says a person who served in various positions at Catholic schools in Cabell County between 2004 and 2016 never completed any training or background checks. Those jobs included chaperoning overnight trips and working as a guest teacher.

This lawsuit comes after former Bishop Michael J. Bransfield was banned from exercising any priestly or episcopal ministry within the Diocese. He is accused of sexual harassment against adults and financial improprieties. He is also specifically named in this civil suit.

On Sept. 13, 2018, the Holy See announced the retirement of Bransfield. Morrisey's office launched its investigation that same month.

"The amended complaint alleges the Diocese relied upon Bishop Michael J. Bransfield’s policy of nondisclosure when it failed to publicly report allegations of a Catholic school teacher abusing a teenage student in Kanawha County. An internal investigation in 2006 alleged the teacher gained the student’s trust with alcohol and prescription drugs, before multiple instances of sexual abuse on and off school property.

According to this updated complaint, "Bishop Bransfield was made personally aware the background checks were not completed" at the Catholic school in Kanawha County.

The attorney general also wants to add a new count of unfair competition to the lawsuit.

"The unfair competition count alleges the Diocese omitted material facts when it advertised for prospective students to join its schools and camps," Morrisey's office stated in a press release. "This omission prevented parents purchasing its services from realizing allegations that the Diocese knowingly employed priests who had admitted to or had been credibly accused of sexually abusing children and failed to conduct background checks."

The AG's office is claiming the Diocese violated the state's consumer protection laws. Morrisey is also seeking a permanent court order blocking the Diocese "from the continuation of any such conduct."

“How can anyone reasonably argue that these allegations are old when the Church refused to release its list of credibly accused priests until after the issuance of our subpoena in the fall of 2018?” Morrisey questioned in a news release. “The Church needs to come clean and end the secrecy.”

Morrisey filed the amended complaint in Wood County Circuit Court.



ORIGINAL STORY 3/19/19
The West Virginia attorney general is suing the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese. The civil complaint claims that the Diocese hired pedophiles and lacked transparency about it.

According to the news release, the civil complaint alleges that the Diocese and its bishops intentionally covered up "arguably criminal behavior of child sexual abuse." The complaint includes examples of the Diocese knowingly employing sexual abusers and priests accused of child sexual abuse. It also alleges that the Diocese hired people without adequate background checks.

This comes after former Bishop Michael J. Bransfield was banned from exercising any priestly or episcopal ministry within the Diocese. He is accused of sexual harassment against adults and financial improprieties. He is also specifically named in this new civil suit.

On Sept. 13, 2018, the Holy See announced the retirement of Bransfield. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey's office launched its investigation that same month.

Morrisey's office filed the lawsuit Tuesday. The press release announcing the suit says that the Diocese's actions "stood in sharp contrast to the Diocese's advertised mission of providing a safe learning environment."

"The Wheeling-Charleston Diocese and former Bishop Michael J. Bransfield knowingly employed pedophiles and failed to conduct adequate background checks for those working at the Diocese's schools and camps, all without disclosing the inherent danger to parents who purchased its services for their children," a press release from Morrisey's office states.

The AG's office is claiming the Diocese violated the state's consumer protection laws. Morrisey is also seeking a permanent court order blocking the Diocese "from the continuation of any such conduct."

“Parents who pay and entrust the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese and its schools to educate and care for their children deserve full transparency,” Morrisey said. “Our investigation reveals a serious need for the Diocese to enact policy changes that will better protect children, just as this lawsuit demonstrates our resolve to pursue every avenue to effectuate change as no one is above the law.”

The Wheeling-Charleston Diocese released the following statement later Tuesday:

"The Diocese learned from media sources today that the Attorney General of the State of West Virginia, filed a civil lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Wood County, West Virginia, alleging that the Diocese has violated the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act. The Complaint is based in part on information included in the Diocese’s November 2018 public disclosure of clergy credibly accused of child sexual abuse and on other information provided by the Diocese to the Attorney General over the past five months. The November disclosure by the Diocese contains details concerning both the dates of the alleged occurrences and the dates they were actually reported to the Diocese, which in many cases were decades later. Further, some of the allegations of misconduct contained in the Attorney General’s Complaint occurred more than 50 years ago and some are not accurately described.

"The Diocese will address the litigation in the appropriate forum. However, the Diocese strongly and unconditionally rejects the Complaint’s assertion that the Diocese is not wholly committed to the protection of children, as reflected in its rigorous Safe Environment Program, the foundation of which is a zero tolerance policy for any cleric, employee or volunteer credibly accused of abuse. The Program employs mandatory screening, background checks and training for all employees and volunteers who work with children.

"The Diocese also does not believe that the allegations contained in the Complaint fairly portray its overall contributions to the education of children in West Virginia nor fairly portray the efforts of its hundreds of employees and clergy who work every day to deliver quality education in West Virginia."


The Wheeling-Charleston Diocese says former Bishop Michael Bransfeld regularly harassed young priests, as well as committed financial improprieties, during his 13 years leading the Catholic Church in West Virginia.


 
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