New allegations about abuse at the hands of priests and others within Catholic diocese across the country has elicited renewed scrutiny from state lawmakers and law enforcement officials nationwide as they seek ways to hold accountable those responsible for a litany of alleged crimes. Broad criminal cases have been few and far between with scattered individual prosecutions often hampered by statutes of limitations and other complicating factors. However, the attorney general of West Virginia believes he has found a way to enforce some accountability through the use of a unique civil suit.
In late March, AG Patrick Morrisey filed a lawsuit with one of the state's Catholic diocese in the crosshairs. Rather than attempting a criminal prosecution, Morrisey's suit alleges that the Catholic Church violated rules outlined in West Virginia's Consumer Credit and Protection Act, a law intended to safeguard consumers from unscrupulous companies. The suit alleges that the Wheeling-Charleston diocese failed to follow proper procedure for conducting background checks and went as far as to employ individuals known to have previously committed sex crimes.
The suit alleges that the Church regularly failed to carry out legally-required background checks, similar to the multi-jurisdictional US OneSEARCH provided by backgroundchecks.com, even when applicants disclosed accusations of previous crimes. Instead, West Virginia says the diocese merely relied on the word of officials from the priest's previous diocese. Even members of the laity who applied for work within the diocese did not receive background checks. In one case, a priest who had confessed to abusing children was placed for work within one of the area's Catholic elementary schools.
West Virginia contends that the Church violated the consumer protection law. The state is seeking a variety of penalties, including mandatory changes to the diocese policies and severe financial consequences for both the Bishop and the diocese for every violation of the law.
Legal experts hailed the move as a groundbreaking way to explore new opportunities for penalizing the Church for its misdeeds while religious officials contend that such laws cannot apply to the Church as it is not a business. While the outcome of this lawsuit remains to be seen, the allegations and facts laid out within the court filings offer a stunning view of the consequences that can arise from systemic failures in an organization's approach to background checks.
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