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Montana Catholic diocese must identify 27 former clergy as abusers, settlement says

Montana Catholic diocese must identify 27 former clergy as abusers, settlement says


The Great Falls-Billings Diocese will soon post online the names of 27 former clergy whose 50 years of sexual abuse in Eastern Montana prompted two lawsuits and led the diocese to declare bankruptcy in 2017.

The 86 individuals who were abused between 1943 and 1993 are now voting on the proposed $20 million settlement, announced in April. Two-thirds' support is needed, and diocese attorney Ford Elsaesser expects only one or two "no" votes at most. An attorney for the victims did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The bankruptcy court will then hold a final hearing to confirm the plan on Aug. 14 in Butte. 

Insurance will cover $8 million of the settlement, and parishioners have contributed nearly $4 million at the bishop's request, Chancellor Darren Eultgen said Monday. The diocese plans to sell off excess property as well.

The names of the clergy who committed the abuse are included in a document filed in federal bankruptcy court July 3 detailing the non-monetary terms of the settlement. Once approved, the settlement will dismiss the two lawsuits filed against the diocese in state court, said Vito de la Cruz, of Tamaki Law in Washington, who represented 38 victims.

For the victims, accountability measures were a top priority, he said.

“The non-monetary terms are sometimes equally or more important than the monetary terms of the settlement,” he said in an April phone interview after the proposed settlement was made public.

Speaking Monday, Bishop Michael Warfel said he hoped the plan provided a way forward for the church.

"Basically what the diocese wants to do is be a source of healing, especially when a minister of the diocese has been a cause of hurt, wanting to somehow rectify that," he said. "And so being present to hear from people, to listen to people, to extend sorrow and apology is all just a pastoral part of that."

The names will be posted on the diocese’s website within 30 days of the bankruptcy court’s approval and remain online for at least 10 years, according to the proposed terms.

For two years after the settlement is finalized, the diocese must reserve space on its website for victim statements.

The diocese must continue its initiatives aimed at child protection, including background checks and psychological evaluations for seminarians.

The proposed terms require the bishop to meet one-on-one with any abuse survivor who requests it, including those who did not file a claim in the case. He also must visit each vicariate, or geographical concentration of parishes, where the abuse occurred: Billings, Great Falls, Havre, Miles City and Wolf Point.

The diocese must post in a “prominent link” on its website a phone number and email where abuse complaints, anonymous or not, can be made.

It will have to adopt a whistleblower policy protecting anyone who files a report against any diocese, parish or mission employee in Eastern Montana.

The diocese must also “make every effort” to ensure that its clergy, employees or other agents do not refer to victims as “alleged victims.”

The diocese is prohibited from lobbying for legal changes that would limit liability for sexual offenses against children, including that it cannot seek to oppose or challenge reforms to the criminal or civil statutes of limitations.

The diocese must also print in its newspaper, The Harvest, twice a year a statement urging sexual abuse victims to contact law enforcement.

The non-monetary terms are similar to those the Helena Diocese agreed to in 2015 as a condition of its own $20 million settlement with victims. That case had 362 known victims.

The Great Falls-Billings Diocese bankruptcy was the 15th Catholic bankruptcy case in the United States. It has 100 parishes and missions and 35 schools or other church-affiliated entities, such as St. Vincent Healthcare and Angela’s Piazza in Billings.


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Related to this story

As part of the bankruptcy process for the Great Falls-Billings Diocese, the church will commit to the proposed list of non-monetary terms.

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