PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has returned fire in his lawsuit against the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, urging the court to deny the diocese’s motion to dismiss the case – which alleges the diocese violated consumer protection law by failing to disclose that it employed priests who sexually abused children or had credible accusations of sexual abuse, and failed to conduct background checks for priests, employees and volunteers who had contact with children.
Morrisey filed the response late Wednesday and announced it on Thursday.
He summarizes his counter-arguments to the diocese’s objections, saying it “can hire whomever it chooses, teach as the tenets of it faith dictate in its schools, and operate its camps however it deems best. What it cannot do – and the only thing this lawsuit seeks to end – is refuse to deal honestly and fairly when it sells education and recreation service to the general public and competes with public private schools and camps. The diocese is not required to offer these services, but our state’s consumer protection laws demand that when it does, it must follow through on its promises.”
Morrisey filed the suit in March in Wood County Circuit Court, and amended and expanded the complaint in June. The diocese filed its second motion to dismiss in July, reported in The Dominion Post at the time.
Morrisey offers counter-arguments to each of the diocese’s objections.
The diocese contends that Morrisey wrongly applies the state’s Consumer Credit and Protection Act because it applies to debtor-creditor relationships – credit sales, loans and leases. While the schools provide for third-party payment plans, the schools are not liable for the lenders’ conduct and the plans are not actual credit because no interest is charged.
Morrisey offers several points against that. Among them, the diocese sells its educational and recreational services for a fee. The CCPA permits civil actions based on credit and cash transactions. And the diocese does arrange financing, of itself or through third parties, and sues when fees are not paid.
The diocese contends that Catholic schools are regulated by an entirely different section of code, and where the CCPA references education it’s referring to school loans. Morrisey counters that the state Supreme Court recognizes educational services as a service covered by the CCPA and the various references to education in the act indicate the Legislature had these services in mind when it passed the act.
Morrisey says the suit “does not seek to regulate education generally, nor any specific aspects of how the diocese chooses to operate its schools or camps or its personnel decisions.” Instead, the suit alleges the diocese’s advertisement of its services “has been misleading because it denied and concealed that it knowingly employed priests and other employees accused or convicted of sexual abuse of children.”
The diocese also contends that the CCPA has a four-year “lookback” statute of limitations, and none of Morrisey’s allegations fall within that window. Again Morrissey offers several counter-points. One, the suit points to ongoing, repeated and willful violations stemming from its continued failure to disclose its employment of sexual abusers and its ongoing promise to conduct background checks.
Two, as recently as 2015 and 2016 it employed a person without a background check.
Three, the state did not become aware of the key elements of the suit until 2018, and took immediate action to investigate.
“These allegations,” he says, “are based on documents the that the diocese itself provided to the state and describe conduct purposely concealed from the public for 44 years after the CCPA became law. … The diocese concealed misconduct of its priests, teachers and other employees for nearly 70 years and has yet to acknowledge the full extent of these abuses,” while still advertising its schools and camps as safe. While the abuses don’t violate the CCCPA, failure to disclose them to potential customers does.
Finally, the diocese contends that the suit is a state attempt to overstep its authority and to regulate the church. Morrisey counters that the state recognizes it may not govern a church’s internal affairs, but case law proves that applying the CCPA does not apply a religious test, treat religious entities differently, or “unreasonably obstruct or delay” church activities. General laws can apply to religious organizations; requiring fair advertising is different from intruding into internal affairs.
In a release announcing the filing, Morrisey said, “The diocese’s motion to dismiss is yet another attempt to duck our calls for transparency. Our response proves the strength of our case and why it should be decided in court. The decades-long pattern of cover-up and abuse must end and public trust must be restored.”