Editorial: West Virginia gets creative holding Church accountable for abuse


Gage Skidmore | Wikimedia Commons

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey filed a civil suit against the state’s singular Roman Catholic diocese and a retired top bishop on Tuesday.

When Pennsylvania released a report last August detailing decades of alleged child sexual abuse covered up by Catholic church leaders, states around the nation launched their own investigations into their local dioceses.

Holding people accountable for the widespread abuse hasn’t been easy. There seem to be legal obstacles in every state, which is why West Virginia is getting creative. The state’s solution to these legal impediments might help in the effort to hold accountable those who enabled the abuse to happen.

In West Virginia, the attorney general can only bring civil cases, not criminal cases. This means the state can’t file against individuals who allegedly sexually abused children. To get around this handicap, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey filed a civil suit against the state’s singular Roman Catholic diocese and a retired top bishop on Tuesday.

This isn’t the first time church leaders have faced civil suits. Many claims in the past have been claims of negligence, including the first class-action suit against the Vatican filed in November 2018 for actions of its clergy in the United States. But the West Virginia suit steals a more recent legal strategy that has been used in opioid and environmental cases.

The suit is unusual in that it accuses church officials of violating consumer protection laws, which are usually connected to companies and not religious institutions. Its argument is that the church told parents their children would be safe while attending schools and camps affiliated with it, while “knowingly employing pedophiles” and neglecting to inform parents of that fact.

“We believe that every parent who paid tuition for a service that falls under consumer protection laws deserves to know the schools their children are attending are safe,” Morrisey told The New York Times. “The church itself advertised that these children would be in a safe environment.”

Courts might not agree with the idea that dioceses fall under consumer protection laws. The freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment could protect the church from being included in this set of federal laws.

“I wonder if there aren’t some First Amendment issues here,” Nicholas P. Cafardi, a Pennsylvania lawyer, said. “If the attorney general could convince the courts that this was more than a religious activity, he may have a case.”

While the validity of such a case may be questionable, the fact that West Virginia is willing to try any means necessary to prosecute alleged abusers is reassuring, and its approach might help other states do the same.

Pennsylvania, as well as several other states, is hindered by a statute of limitations that is too short to be useful to survivors who step forward years after the abuse. But if the commonwealth adopted West Virginia’s approach of using consumer protection laws, it might find a way to get around these obstacles.

“I’m pleased to see Attorney General Morrisey taking such an innovative approach to protecting children in West Virginia,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said. He has spoken to other attorneys general about West Virginia’s strategy.

States face a variety of impediments in bringing justice against alleged abusers, but while they attempt to fix these impediments by fundamentally changing laws, like extending the statute of limitations in states like Pennsylvania, creative approaches to the legal system might be the only way to hold the church accountable for its alleged abuse.