HELENA — Most of the 362 sex-abuse victims who sued the Catholic church of western Montana, saying they were abused years ago by priests and nuns, will get monetary damages from a settlement with the church.
But they’ll see something else they consider vitally important, their lawyers say: Public identification of their abusers.
“They wanted their abusers to be publicly identified and for the diocese to accept responsibility,” says Tim Kosnoff, a Seattle attorney who co-represents 271 of the plaintiffs in two lawsuits. “By that aspect, I think we’ve succeeded.”
Kosnoff and other attorneys who worked on the cases say more than 50 Roman Catholic priests will be named as sexual abusers of children.
Once the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Butte approves the settlement, the names of the abusers will be posted on the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena’s website.
Most, if not all, of these priests are dead, attorneys for the plaintiffs say. The bulk of the abuse occurred from the 1940s through the 1970s, although some happened as far back as the 1930s.
The oldest victims are in their 80s; the youngest are in their 40s.
The settlement, if approved, also may include documents that discuss the knowledge of diocese officials who knew or may have known about the abuse, plaintiffs’ attorneys say. However, these officials won’t be held personally liable.
David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, has criticized such settlements for not doing more to identify responsible church officials, saying the “enablers” should be exposed.
Still, it’s no secret who led the Helena Diocese when the abuses occurred: Bishop Joseph Gilmore, who served from 1936 until his death in 1962, Raymond Hunthausen, the bishop from 1962-1975, and Elden Curtiss, who was bishop from 1976-1993.
Hunthausen lives in a Helena nursing home and Curtiss is a retired archbishop of Omaha, Neb.
The victims filed two lawsuits in 2011 in state District Court in Helena against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena and the Ursuline Sisters of the Western Province, whose nuns ran a school in St. Ignatius. The suits said nuns at the Ursuline Academy and priests in 23 western Montana counties groomed and then abused children in their care, and that the church shielded the offenders or should have known about them.
On Jan. 31, the Diocese of Helena filed for bankruptcy protection as part of a proposed settlement with the plaintiffs.
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The settlement says the church will pay $15 million to the victims and set aside at least another $2.5 million for victims who come forward later.
The agreement also calls for identification of those “credibly accused” of abusing children.
George Thomas, bishop of the Diocese of Helena since 2004, said in a recent interview that a church review board will look at abuse claims, but that he doesn’t expect the church to quibble over the naming of abusers.
“I give the benefit of the doubt to the accuser,” he said. “The one thing I want to punctuate is that I have been committed from the beginning to transparency. There are no names that I will hold in secret.
“If an accusation is made against (someone) and the facts line up, I think the public has a right to know.”
Molly Howard, a Missoula attorney representing some of the plaintiffs, says she’s heard no arguments from Thomas or the Diocese of Helena over abusers named by her clients, but that any disputes will be sorted out by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
Kosnoff also says that while identification of the abusers isn’t complete and the diocese’s personnel records are sometimes unclear, there’s been “a great deal of independent corroboration of circumstances” in the identification of abusers.
The trustee for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court is naming two committees of creditors for the case, and one will be made up entirely of sexual-abuse survivors, Howard says. Once those committees are formed, the “first order of business” will be to prepare and send ballots to the plaintiffs to vote on whether to accept the settlement, she says.
The settlement of the Helena Diocese case is seen by some as a model of cooperation between sex-abuse accusers and the church, and Bishop Thomas said the church is committed to preventing future abuse and helping victims heal.
“If there are victims out there who are still unknown to us … the publication of the known abusers’ names gives them courage to come forward and start the healing process,” he said. “It comes out of the context of pastoral care.”
Kosnoff, the attorney for the victims, says that’s all well and good, but he’s not convinced the Catholic church has committed to solving the problem.
“Who knows how long (Bishop Thomas) will be around?” Kosnoff says. “I think the problem is a very deep-rooted and complex issue that isn’t going away with this settlement.”
Tomorrow: A look at how the proposed settlement, if approved, will affect the finances and operations of Catholic churches in western Montana. Meanwhile, more plaintiffs are expected to come forward in a suit against the Great Falls-Billings Diocese.