Alleging Child Abusers Were Knowingly Hired, West Virginia AG Sues Catholic Diocese

The lawsuit alleges that the diocese knowingly employed admitted sexual abusers, hired priests without performing adequate background checks, hired priests credibly accused of sexually abusing children and hired lay employees without performing adequate background checks.
by | March 20, 2019 AT 7:35 AM

By Jake Zuckerman

When the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston hired Victor Frobas in 1965, it knew he had been credibly accused of sexually abusing a child three years prior.

The bishop of the diocese at the time, Joseph Hodges, decided to give Frobas, a priest, a second chance. Frobas became director of Camp Tygart, a summer youth camp now known as Camp Bosco, in 1972. While there, he was accused of sexually abusing children.

After spending a few months at the "House of Affirmation" in Massachusetts, a now-shuttered institution known for treating priests engaged in pedophilia, Hodges returned Frobas to work as a chaplain in Wheeling in 1976, and then, as the chaplain at Wheeling Central Catholic High School in 1977.

After a series of leaves of absence, the diocese suspended Frobas in 1987. That same year, he was indicted in St. Louis for inappropriate contact with two minors. He pleaded guilty.

Such are accusations contained in a lawsuit West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey filed Tuesday in Wood County Circuit Court against the diocese and its former bishop, Michael Bransfield, who resigned last year following accusations that he sexually harassed adults while serving as bishop.

The lawsuit, filed under the state's Consumer Credit and Protection Act, alleges that the diocese and Bransfield knowingly employed admitted sexual abusers, hired priests without performing adequate background checks, hired priests credibly accused of sexually abusing children and hired lay employees without performing adequate background checks.

In a statement, the diocese refuted some of the allegations in the complaint and said it will address the litigation "in the appropriate forum." However, spokesman Tim Bishop declined to comment further.

"Some of the allegations of misconduct contained in the Attorney General's Complaint occurred more than 50 years ago and some are not accurately described," the statement reads.

It goes on to reject any assertion that the Diocese "is not wholly committed to the protection of children." It says the diocese uses a zero-tolerance policy for employees accused of abuse and that all its employees who work with children are subject to background checks and mandatory screening.

The complaint outlines five examples -- with three alleged abusers identified by name -- of the reported wrongdoing on the part of the alleged abusers and the diocese.

For instance, Father Patrick Condron was employed by the diocese at St. Joseph Preparatory Seminary High School, in Vienna, from 1980 to 1987. In 1995, an unidentified former student accused Condron of lavishing him with attention and eventually "long embraces, passing through kissing, and culmination in an attempt at genital sexual intercourse," according to the complaint.

When confronted by diocese leadership, Condron admitted the allegations and was placed on administrative leave and sent for evaluation and treatment at two facilities "for substance abuse and psychotherapy."

Former bishop Bernard Schmitt returned Condron to active ministry, first at a parish in Wheeling, and then, at Wheeling Catholic Elementary School from 1998 to 2001.

"Upon information and belief, the Diocese did not advise parents of children at Wheeling Catholic Elementary School that it was employing a pedophile during the time that Condron was employed there," the suit states.

The diocese also employed nonreligious teachers at its schools without proper vetting, according to the lawsuit. For instance, Ronald Cooper was hired in April 2011 to teach at Madonna High School, in Weirton.

Cooper failed to disclose on his employment application that he had been convicted of third-degree statutory rape in Washington state in 1985 and had also pleaded guilty to first degree robbery.

The diocese allegedly failed to conduct a criminal background check and did not discover the criminal conduct until 2013.

Although his employment was terminated in December 2013, the diocese did not tell parents of students that it had employed a person convicted of sexual abuse of a child.

In another instance, the lawsuit accuses Schmitt, while serving as bishop, of hiring a priest from another diocese in 2002 who had been accused of sexual abuse of a child in 1979. The lawsuit alleges that the diocese checked on this priest's background only by calling the Archdiocese of Baltimore to see if it had any complaints against him.

The lawsuit also accused the diocese of hiring an unidentified man to be a principal (who eventually became an ordained priest in the diocese) of an unnamed Catholic high school. An unnamed alleged victim claimed in the lawsuit that he was sexually abused by this principal when he was a student at the high school -- an accusation the diocese reportedly found to be credible.

After the diocese was made aware of other "inappropriate behavior" of this priest during the 2004 and 2005 period involving middle school and high school boys, he was sent for psychiatric evaluation, but left the program and was suspended from ministry in August 2005.

 

Scandal renewed

The breadth of the scandal of sexual abuse of children by members of the Catholic Church and the ensuing cover-ups were brought to light in a 2002 investigative series by The Boston Globe.

The scandal took on new life in August 2018 when a Pennsylvania grand jury released a 1,356 page report that said more than 300 priests had sexually abused children.

That report named one priest who had served in West Virginia, Father Raymond Lukac. He was assigned to the Immaculate Conception Church in Clarksburg in 1964. Before arriving, Lukac allegedly had sexually abused four females.

Also prior to his arrival, Lukac attended the "Foundation House" in Jemez Springs, New Mexico. Both Condron and Frobas also underwent treatment in Jemez Springs, according to Morrisey's lawsuit.

In September, Bransfield offered his resignation when he turned 75, as required by the Vatican. A week later, Pope Francis said he had authorized an investigation into Bransfield in connection with allegations of sexual harassment of adults.

Bransfield had been investigated for an alleged groping incident in 2007 and was implicated in court testimony in 2012 in a Philadelphia priest's sexual abuse case. Specifically, a witness at the trial testified that another priest sexually assaulted him in a New Jersey beach house owned by Bransfield. Both Bransfield and the West Virginia diocese said they had disproved the claims.

In November, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston released the names of 18 priests who had been credibly accused of the sexual abuse of minors in West Virginia between the 1960s and the 2000s.

Condron and Frobas appear on this list.

The diocese also released the names of 13 other priests who served in West Virginia who were the subjects of credible complaints elsewhere, although not in West Virginia -- including Lukac.

Last week, the five-month investigation into Bransfield ended. Its findings were sent to the Holy See.

"We believe an important first step for the Diocese is to come clean for what it knows," Morrisey said at a news conference. "The church should open its files to the public and disclose what happened with every credible allegation of sexual abuse that was brought to the diocese's attention, while protecting the identities of victims and their families.

"An excellent first step for the diocese would be to publicize the report prepared by the Archdiocese of Baltimore involving allegations of abuse against former bishop Michael Bransfield, who is one of the listed defendants of this complaint."

He said his office also has been in communication with prosecutors, and is "in the process" of referring matters out.

In a statement, Judy Jones, a spokeswoman with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, issued a statement praising Morrisey's action and condemning the Catholic Church.

"Failing to conduct background checks for those working or volunteering around children is bad enough. Employing known perpetrators is far worse," Jones said. "These decisions put children at unnecessary risk and why? To save some time on paper work or make a hiring process easier? Such actions are absolutely mind-boggling."

(c)2019 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.)