CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- 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, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday by the state attorney general.
Attorney General Patrick Morrisey's suit against the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and Bishop Michael Bransfield was brought under the state's consumer credit and protection act, which several attorneys said is a first-of-its kind move.
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. It 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.
A spokesman from the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston issued a statement saying some of the allegations are not accurately described and adding that they would address the litigation "in the appropriate forum."
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. Frobas 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, which seeks a court order to stop the diocese from continuing its alleged practice of employing admitted abusers and trying to cover them up. Morrisey said his office is in the process of referring individual cases to local prosecutors.
"We believe an important first step for the diocese is to come clean with what it knows," Morrisey said.
A statement from the diocese says the allegations do not "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."
No one responded to a voicemail left with a phone number listed for Bransfield.
St. Paul, Minnesota-based attorney Jeff Anderson, who has handled church abuse cases for more than three decades, is one of two attorneys who said using the consumer credit and protection act in such a suit was a unique move sure to inspire other states.
"This is unprecedented and appropriate, and foreshadows other actions to come," Anderson said. "There's no question that this is a wellspring with many tributaries to follow."
Morrisey and the president of the board of directors of the national nonprofit group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, Tim Lennon, also said they had never heard of using the consumer credit and protection act in such a way.
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.
Lennon 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.