Is Attorney General Just Seeking Favorable Publicity?

It is a very dangerous thing when the government seeks to regulate or control religion for any reason. The First Amendment has long been construed by the courts to require “a wall of separation” between church and state.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has sued the Catholic Church in West Virginia over the past conduct of its priests and hierarchy. The basic charge in that the church knowingly hired pedophiles and did not conduct background checks on employees for schools and camps operated by the diocese. In the past!

For all practical purposes, the diocese has admitted these allegations. To the extent that they are crimes, the attorney general has absolutely no authority to deal with them. The power to initiate criminal proceedings is vested exclusively in the 55 local county prosecuting attorneys. The attorney general cannot even suggest a course of action to a local prosecuting attorney. Since there is absolutely nothing that the attorney general can do about even admitted criminal conduct in the past, this suit must be an attempt enjoin criminal conduct in the future.

The problem is that the civil law will not normally countenance an attempt to proscribe criminal conduct in the future. For example, the state cannot sue someone to prevent that person from robbing a bank or selling drugs, even if it is established as an absolute certainty that the crime will occur.

The asserted statutory basis for the suit here is the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act. If a totally unqualified person were made head of West Virginia University, would an aggrieved student (or parent) have standing to sue? More importantly, could the attorney general bring a class action law suit on behalf of all the parents who paid good money for their children to attend a school and later discovered that the school had an incompetent president? Isn’t this precisely what the attorney general is trying to do here?

Before this hypothetical is labeled too absurd to consider, I would remind the reader that in 2007 the powers-that-be made a lawyer by the name of Mike Garrison president of our flagship university (sorry, Marshall alums!) and the populace rose up en masse and forced his resignation. Governor Manchin was supposedly behind this appointment and, as I recall Darrell McGraw, a former WVU student body president, was attorney general then. The next time I see Darrell, I’ll ask him if he considered a Morrisey-type lawsuit at the time.)

It is difficult to think of a outcome to this suit that would benefit anyone other than the attorney general. No pedophile priests are going to jail, right? There will be no monetary damages for the victims, right? And what possible benefit could this suit bring to those parents whose children have already passed through the system? If any of you readers can think of any positive good coming from this lawsuit to any person or entity other than, of course, Mr. Morissey, please write a letter to the editor and copy me.

The benefits to the attorney general though seem rather obvious. First of all, in his press release the attorney general said that he was doing this “for the children.” It is interesting to note that this is the theme that the infamous Don Blankenship used in his gutter campaign to elect “Buckeye” Benjamin to the Supreme Court a decade or so ago. The problem with this tactic of Morrisey’s is that as a rule, pedophile priests do not prey upon parochial students; it is the altar boys that they “groom.” (My source for this is Terry Gosa, a graduate of Wheeling Central Catholic, a retired union leader, and former Ohio County Board of Education member, now residing in South Carolina.)

Secondly, West Virginia’s small Catholic population means that the attorney general is going to lose few votes by suing the Catholic church with an alleged goal of protecting little children from degenerate priests. Actually, an argument could be made that this suit is “red meat” for Morrisey’s Protestant base. No less an authority than veteran Wheeling attorney (and Moundsville resident) J. Thomas Madden deemed the attorney general’s strategy in this regard “brilliant, but deplorable.”

Someone should ask the attorney general about his choice of venue for the suit. Why, Mr. Morrisey, did you file suit in Parkersburg against a legal entity that has its headquarters in Wheeling? Why not Charleston, which would have been convenient for you and not inconvenient for the Catholics, since the co-cathedral is there? Unless the attorney general can come up with a solid legal rational for choosing Wood County, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he is doing a little “forum shopping,” which, of course, is not illegal, just sleazy.

It is hard to escape that conclusion that our attorney general is just trying to reap some of the same favorable publicity that the attorney general of Pennsylvania did with his grand jury investigation into the cover-up of pedophile priests.

However, the Comonwealth’s AG did not have to create a Rube Goldberg, jury rigged contraption to effect his purpose. He had criminal authority; he convened a grand jury; and it produced a report. All very kosher (pun fully intended since the Pennsylvania AG in Jewish.)

Rogers is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the Harvard Law School and is an involuntarily retired lawyer in New Martinsville. He holds two graduate degrees in theology and is currently a Eucharistic Minister on the Capital Unit at S.C.I. Greene in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania.

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