State Attorney General Files Suit against Diocese, Bishop Bransfield

WHEELING—Pointing to 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 Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston “strongly and unconditionally rejects” West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrissey’s assertion that it is not wholly committed to the protection of children, a statement from the diocese said.
Morrissey announced March 19 that he has brought a civil suit against the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, the diocese’s former bishop, alleging that they violated the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act by failing “to disclose to consumers of its educational and recreational services that it employed priests and laity who have sexually abused children.”
Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore and apostolic administrator of Wheeling-Charleston addressed the issue in a letter to the priests, religious and lay faithful of the state March 29: “We are addressing this lawsuit appropriately and with the utmost seriousness while steadfastly affirming our ongoing commitment to the rigorous policies and practices in place to ensure the absolute protection of those young people entrusted to our care.”
The faithful also received a letter from the diocese March 22 stating that the diocese’s Safe Environment 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 letter said. “While the diocese will address the litigation in the appropriate forum, we wanted to update you, our Catholic families, on our efforts to keep your children safe.”
The letter states that 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, the letter said. Some of the allegations of misconduct contained in the attorney general’s complaint, the letter states, “occurred more than 50 years ago and some are not accurately described.”
A press release from the Office of the Attorney General states: The complaint alleges that after (former) Father Patrick Condron admitted that he sexually abused a student at St. Joseph Preparatory Seminary High School in Vienna (in the mid 1980s), the diocese allegedly sent Condron for treatment and later reassigned him to Wheeling Catholic Elementary School, from 1998 to 2001, without notifying parents it was employing a pedophile at the elementary school. (Condron’s priestly faculties were restricted in 2005 and suspended in 2006. He was laicized in 2012.)
The complaint further alleges the Diocese, despite its knowledge of a credible sex abuse accusation against Victor Frobas in Philadelphia, ordained Frobas as a priest in West Virginia and years later named him director at Camp Tygart, now known as Camp Bosco, in Huttonsville. Accusations there led to treatment, but later employment as chaplain at Wheeling Central Catholic High School, after which he received more treatment and eventually prison time for pleading guilty to sexually abusing children in Missouri. He died in 1993. (Frobas was assigned to Wheeling Central in 1977 for two months and left the Diocese in 1983.)
The attorney general’s lawsuit alleges the diocese failed to notify parents about Frobas, even after he returned from therapy, upon his assignment to Central Catholic.
The complaint alleges that another priest admitted on his employment application to having been accused of child sexual abuse decades earlier, yet the civil complaint alleges the diocese passed on the opportunity to thoroughly vet the priest and adequately check his background. Instead, the diocese and two bishops employed the priest for approximately four years at a parish that operates an elementary school. The name of this priest is not disclosed in the complaint.
Information on the diocese’s Safe Environment Program was also included in the March 22 letter from the diocese and was provided to the attorney general over the past five months. The statement from the diocese notes that the information is “not included in the complaint nor adequately referenced in it.”
Included in the letter to the faithful were yearly statistics as reported to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops through the audit process which includes the number of children, clergy, employees and volunteers to whom the Safe Environment process applied. For children, the process involved completion of age-appropriate awareness training. For clergy, employees and volunteers, the process involved awareness training for adults, background check and receipt of the diocese’s Sex Abuse Policy.
The information states that the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston has spent approximately $355,060 on thousands of background checks since December of 2004 and $153,861 on VIRTUS awareness training for adults by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group since March of 2004.
The letter also said that in addition to the Safe Environment Process Administrator and Coordinator at the Chancery level, there are approximately 150 local level Safe Environment coordinators working in parishes, schools and other Catholic organizations throughout the diocese “to help keep our youth and vulnerable adults safe by administering the Safe Environment process to employees and volunteers.” The majority of these local level coordinators are laity.
As of 2016, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston implemented a new diocesan-wide software platform called the ParishSoft Safe Environment Program Manager to track and document compliance for employees and volunteers. “Implementation of the software was designed to improve accuracy and efficiency and promote uniformity and expediency in verifying a person’s status relative to Safe Environment compliance,” the letter stated.
Also emphasized was that the diocese encourages reporting to civil authorities first and foremost.
The letter was sent to all parishes and clergy of the diocese. Printed copies were available to congregants when they arrived for weekend Masses.
“You, the faithful across our state, are living models of Christ through your commitment to spreading the Gospel, helping the least among us and supporting Catholic education,” the letter said. “You place your faith, not only in God, but in the Diocese to do the same. This is not something we take lightly and we strive each day to fulfill the commitment we have made to you.”
Read the full text of Archbishop Lori’s letter on Page 1 and the letter from the diocese on Pages 7-8 in this issue.