West Virginia's attorney general alleges Catholic Church allowed abusive priests to teach in schools

A new civil complaint is the latest action taken against a Catholic diocese.

March 19, 2019, 5:18 PM

The Catholic diocese allowed priests to serve in the West Virginia community and work in their schools in spite of known histories of sexual abuse, according to newly filed court documents.

The Attorney General of West Virginia announced today that his office filed a civil complaint against the diocese and the bishop over the lack of transparency and their decisions to allow predators in their schools.

The complaint says that the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston "engaged in unfair or deceptive acts or practices by failing to disclose to consumers of its educational and recreational services that it employed priests and laity who have sexually abused children, including an admitted abuser who the Diocese nevertheless allowed to work in a Catholic elementary school."

The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston issued a statement later Tuesday, saying that they learned of the civil lawsuit through the media.

"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 statement reads.

"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 statement reads.

This legal action comes during a time of turmoil for the Catholic Church, both in the U.S. and abroad.

Investigations into clerical sexual abuse are underway in Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia and the District of Columbia, as well as with the Archdiocese of Anchorage in Alaska. Spokespersons for several other state attorneys general offices told ABC News that their offices were reviewing options and considering taking similar actions.

PHOTO: The Rev. Michael J. Bransfield expresses his thanks in his closing remarks during his ordination and installation during services at St. Joseph Cathedral in Wheeling, W.Va., Feb. 22, 2005.
The Rev. Michael J. Bransfield expresses his thanks in his closing remarks during his ordination and installation, becoming the eighth Roman Catholic bishop of West Virginia, during services at St. Joseph Cathedral in Wheeling, W.Va., Feb. 22, 2005.
Scott McCloskey/ The Wheeling News Register via AP, FILE

Leaders from more than 100 countries and regions met in the Vatican last month to discuss the abuse epidemic.

The complaint filed Tuesday by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is asking for the diocese to permanently ban the practice of hiring and not disclosing the sexual abuse allegations of employees — which is in violation of the state's business practices — and demands restitution, among other penalties.

The complaint names two priests and one lay person, and references another priest, who is does not named; all of whom were allegedly employed by the diocese in spite of accusations of sexual abuse or misconduct against them.

The complaint highlights the case of Victor Frobas, a priest who was credibly accused of sexually abusing a child when he was staffed in Philadelphia in 1962.

He then moved to the West Virginia diocese in 1965, the year after the complaint about the abuse was made to the Philadelphia diocese.

The complaint charges that Frobas "was moved frequently due to suspicions of and sometimes allegations of sexual abuse of children" with the Diocese's direction.

PHOTO: Ongoing Investigations of Allegations of Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church
Ongoing Investigations of Allegations of Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church
ABC News

While employed by the diocese, Frobas faced multiple subsequent allegations of abuse, took leaves of absence and received treatment at facilities known for dealing with pedophilia, according to the complaint. He left the West Virginia diocese in 1983, but moved on to work in St. Louis and later pleaded guilty to charges of inappropriate contact, leading to a five year prison term before he died in 1993, the complaint read.

The complaint identifies another priest, Father Patrick Condron, who allegedly "groomed" a student for years.

According to allegations made by the student years later, in 1995, Condron groomed him "beginning with long embraces, passing through kissing and culminating in an attempt at genital sexual intercourse," the complaint charges.

Condron admitted the allegations, received treatment, was allowed back into active ministry and later allowed to work at Wheeling Catholic Elementary School, according to the court documents.

The complaint also cites an unnamed priest from another diocese, who on his application form in 2002, wrote that he had been accused of sexually abusing a child in 1979. He was still hired, according to the complaint.

"The Diocese had the opportunity to thoroughly vet this priest after being put on notice to do so, yet, it failed to adequately investigate this priest's background before hiring him," the complaint read.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), the country's oldest and largest support group for survivors of clergy abuse, released a statement praising Morrisey for "bringing these egregious oversights into the light."

"We hope that this move by A.G. Morrisey will prod other law enforcement officials to think outside the box, but will also encourage survivors, witnesses, and whistle blowers in West Virginia to come forward and report to police," SNAP said in a statement Tuesday.