By Gabriella Borter
(Reuters) – West Virginia officials sued the state’s Roman Catholic diocese on Tuesday, accusing the church of knowingly employing priests and lay people in schools, parishes and camps who had admitted to sexually assaulting children.
The lawsuit alleges that the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston violated consumer protection laws by failing to disclose possible unsafe conditions at schools, parishes and camps caused by the employment of people who had records of child sexual assault.
The lawsuit seeks to force the church to pay unspecified financial damages.
It marked the latest move by U.S. officials to take on long-running patterns of sex abuse, which have driven down attendance and undercut the church leadership’s moral authority around the world in recent years.
“The Wheeling-Charleston Diocese engaged in a pattern of denial and cover-up when it discovered its priests were sexually abusing children, particularly in schools and camps run by the Catholic Church and funded through tuition paid by West Virginia consumers,” West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said at a news conference on Tuesday.
Diocesan representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Attempts to reach the people named as defendants, including priests and bishops, were unsuccessful.
The Roman Catholic Church’s abuse crisis exploded onto the international stage in 2002 when the Boston Globe newspaper revealed that priests had sexually abused children for decades and church leaders had tried to cover it up.
The scandal has lived on for years. In one of the largest official reviews, Pennsylvania authorities last year released an investigative report that accused bishops of systematically covering up abuse sexual abuse of children by some 300 priests over decades. That report sparked a federal probe.
Pope Francis has vowed to root out sexual abuse in the church, calling for an “all-out battle” against the crime at a February summit where he was criticized by survivors of sex assault for offering few new concrete proposals.
West Virginia accused church leaders of failing to conduct sufficient background checks of employees who had been accused and sometimes convicted of abusing children and failing to disclose their criminal history to law enforcement and parents.
In one instance, the diocese hired a school teacher who had pled guilty to statutory rape and did not conduct a background check until he had been teaching for two years, Morrisey said.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Rigby)