Using Proceeds Of Lawsuit

If West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey wins his lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, he ought to put any damages awarded by a judge to good use, a local woman suggested to me last week.

Morrisey filed the suit, naming the diocese and former Bishop Michael Bransfield as defendants, in Wood County. In the action, Morrisey accuses the diocese and some of its officials of knowingly employing pedophiles and not conducting background checks on some personnel at church schools and a camp.

No specific dollar amount is specified for damages Morrisey seeks. The suit was filed under the state Consumer Credit and Protection Act.

If he wins, Morrisey’s office could rake in millions of dollars. He has in other consumer protection actions, though there’s no guarantee on this one.

What would the attorney general do with the money?

Some of it could go to ex-students of Catholic schools and their parents. They are cited as victims in the lawsuit. Some of the money might be retained by the state, with part of it remaining in the attorney general’s office and some of it going to the state treasury.

A local woman called to ask me about that last week. She noted closure of two Catholic schools in our area, Bishop Donahue in McMechen and St. John’s in Bellaire. And, she added, Wheeling Jesuit University is in financial trouble.

Morrisey ought to take any proceeds from the lawsuit and give it to the diocese’s Catholic schools and WJU, my caller suggested.

Not a bad idea, I told her — but it can’t happen.

Unless I’m mistaken, there’s a problem with the state of West Virginia giving money to any Roman Catholic entity. It’s the U.S. Constitution and the doctrine of separation of church and state.

Some critics of Morrisey argue his lawsuit, by singling out the diocese, is such an infringement. Making no judgment on the facts of the case, I don’t think so. A good argument can be made that because the diocese charged tuition for students to attend Catholic schools, the church in this situation was selling a service and, as such, its consumers merit protection under state law.

But giving any proceeds from the lawsuit to the diocese could be seen as the state subsidizing a church.

That’s a definite no-no under our system of government. The ban was written into the Constitution because, during the 18th century, the Church of England was subsidized heavily by governments — even in the colony of Virginia. In at least one place, landowners were required by law to pay “tithes” to the church. In some places, you couldn’t hold public office if you weren’t a Church of England member.

We’ve probably gone overboard with separation of church and state. Some lawsuits filed on that basis are, to say the least, absurd.

Still, the church-state separation is important, and giving proceeds from the lawsuit to schools operated by any specific faith probably would not be permitted.

I’m not a lawyer or constitutional scholar, so I can’t say with certainty whether Morrisey’s lawsuit would be governed by that ban. Any attorneys out there who want to weigh in on the question?

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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