The West Virginia attorney general filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against a retired top bishop and the state’s only Roman Catholic diocese, saying that they “knowingly employed pedophiles,” the latest in a string of attempts by law enforcement to hold officials accountable for sexual abuse in the church.
The civil suit is notable for its unusual approach: It accuses church leaders of violating a consumer protection law, a statute that is more commonly applied to companies, not religious institutions.
Despite widespread public outcry over sexual abuse allegations that continue to dog the Catholic Church, prosecutors often face challenges pursuing criminal cases. In the state of West Virginia, the attorney general has the authority to bring only civil cases, not criminal ones. Law enforcement officials in other states have been stymied by statues of limitation, which have often restricted their ability to prosecute allegations of sexual abuse that happened decades ago.
Legal experts say that West Virginia’s lawsuit is a sign that attorneys general are increasingly trying to find novel ways to address the abuse problem in their states.
In the wake of New York passing the Child Victims Act, numerous states are continually working to give a voice to victims of childhood sexual abuse. Jeff Herman, a nationally recognized attorney for victims of sexual abuse said, “It is critical to the healing process for survivors to share their stories. The recognition of institutions’ wrongdoing and harm provides a basis of justice for the brave survivors of childhood sexual abuse.”