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 sexually assaulting children.
The lawsuit alleges 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. It seeks unspecified financial damages.
The lawsuit, which follows an investigation by the state, marks 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.
Diocesan representatives did not respond to a request for comment. Attempts to reach the people named as defendants, including priests and bishops, were unsuccessful.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the world's biggest support group for people hurt by religious and institutional authorities, said it was grateful to Morrisey for undertaking the investigation and "bringing these egregious oversights into the light."
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.
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.
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.
The state 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 histories 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.
West Virginia launched its investigation after learning that at least one of the abusive priests named in the Pennsylvania probe had been employed in the state.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Rigby)