West Virginia Church Suit Signals New Legal Strategy

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Despite widespread public outcry over sexual abuse allegations that continue to dog the Catholic Church, prosecutors often are blocked by statutes of limitations and other challenges in pursuing criminal cases. In what experts told The New York Times is a sign that attorneys general will press for more novel ways to address the problem in their states, the West Virginia attorney general has sued a retired top bishop and the state’s only Roman Catholic diocese, invoking a consumer protection law to accuse the defendants of knowingly employing pedophiles and failing to warn parents.

In the past, church leaders have been sued in civil court with claims of negligence, which some lawyers have seen as a more straightforward strategy. But the consumer protection angle is “groundbreaking,” and similar to inventive legal approaches in opioid or environmental cases, said Jayne Conroy, a trial lawyer at Simmons Hanly Conroy who has worked on a number of high-profile sex-abuse cases against Catholic institutions. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s office began its investigation into the church in September, after the explosive Pennsylvania report last summer alleging that bishops and other church leaders covered up widespread child sexual abuse over several decades. The West Virginia lawsuit says that, in at least five instances over several decades, the diocese put credibly accused priests back into ministry with children or did not conduct proper background checks on school employees.

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