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 admitted to 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 diocese denied the lawsuit's allegations and said it used mandatory screening, background checks and training for all employees and volunteers who worked with children.
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 church attendance and undercut its leaders' 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.
The diocese said some of the allegations of misconduct in the complaint happened over 50 years ago and that some were not accurately described, although it did not say in what way or give any further details.
"The diocese strongly and unconditionally rejects the complaint's assertion that the diocese is not wholly committed to the protection of children," it said in a statement.
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.
Dozens of U.S. dioceses have released names of priests accused of abuse, prompting states to open investigations.
Pope Francis vowed to root out sexual abuse in the church but has been criticized by survivors of sex assault for offering few new concrete proposals.
West Virginia 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.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Rigby)