After six years of litigation and three attempts at mediation, victims of Catholic clergy sex abuse in Eastern Montana have reached a settlement with the church.
The tentative $20 million agreement with the Great Falls-Billings Diocese was announced Friday by the diocese and two law firms representing the victims.
The bankruptcy judge and the victims still must approve the settlement.
The claims cover allegations of sexual abuse between the 1940s and 1980s at ministries throughout the eastern half of the state, from the St. Labre Indian School on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation to the small town of Absarokee.
The tentative agreement was a step in the right direction, Bishop Michael Warfel said in a prepared statement.
“This is part of our continuing efforts to reconcile with the survivors of childhood sex abuse while carrying on with the essential mission of the Church,” he said. “We are hopeful that this settlement without the necessity of years of future litigation will continue the healing process with the abuse survivors.”
In a subsequent interview, the bishop said as with any sex abuse settlement it was unlikely all parties were fully satisfied, but that the $20 million was “maxing us out,” and was the most the diocese could do.
A year ago the diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to negotiate a settlement. In March, the diocese moved to dismiss its bankruptcy case, saying negotiations had reached an impasse and continuing legal costs were draining the resources it had to fund a settlement.
Warfel said at the time that his obligation was to be fair to victims while ensuring the parishes remain viable.
To fund the settlement, the church will use bishop assets and money from its insurance carrier, Catholic Mutual Insurance. The insurance coverage started in 1974 and covers just 22 of the claims.
The bishop has also been meeting with priests to discuss asking parishioners to contribute toward the settlement, but the bishop said he could not require that. The diocese will also sell off excess property that does not house active ministries, purchased with expansion in mind. That includes two roughly 20-acre parcels in Billings — in Briarwood and on the West End.
Attorneys for the victims said they expect the settlement money to be allotted differently based on the circumstances of each claim, as has been done in past settlements with the Catholic church. An independent adjudicator is typically assigned to determine the award amount for individual claims based on established criteria that covers factors like the duration of the abuse and the severity relative to other claims.
A portion of the $20 million will be used to pay legal fees for attorneys representing the individual victims. Separately, the diocese is paying attorney fees for another group of lawyers representing the committee that speaks for victims throughout the bankruptcy process, as required by Chapter 11 rules.
The church aims to pay at least $18 million soon after a settlement plan is confirmed, and pay the remainder within 30 months.
The church said it hopes to have the settlement finalized in four months, but attorneys with Tamaki Law Firm in Washington, which represents 38 of the claimants, said it could take longer.
In 2015, the Helena Diocese, which serves the western half of Montana, settled with 362 abuse victims for $20 million.
Vito de la Cruz, of the Tamaki Law Firm, said provisions in the settlement aimed at accountability were a top priority for victims and can be more important than the monetary terms of the settlement.
Often settlement agreements for Catholic clergy abuse require provisions such as making public the names of the accused clergy members, providing counseling services and improving screening procedures for anyone serving or volunteering in the ministry.
Warfel said those terms have yet to be decided, but that the terms could be similar to the terms of the Helena Diocese settlement, which in part required the diocese to post on its website the names of the accused. He also said the diocese has already taken some steps to prevent future abuse, such as requiring additional training for clergy.
De la Cruz represents a 50-year-old man who said his abuse began while he was in the fourth grade attending Catholic school in Billings in the late 1970s. He said he switched to another school, also in Billings, and was abused there by a different clergyman.
The man, whom The Billings Gazette is not naming because he is victim of sexual abuse, said his reaction to the settlement news was mixed: He is relieved the litigation process is coming to a close, but he said the money won’t “pay for the pain and suffering” he has endured.
The 50-year-old said he knows other victims who dealt with the lifelong consequences of their abuse in other ways, but he resorted to abusing drugs and alcohol, winding up in prison for a period of time. He said he still has nightmares about the abuse.
“Seeing those priests walking around with those white collars is still a trigger for me,” he said. “I just want to tackle them. That’s how I feel. I’m still very angry.”
Another abuse victim, a 71-year-old woman, said she felt disillusioned with the church during the settlement process.
“The diocese came to the mediation table without wanting to offer us a decent settlement,” she said. “They came with a pittance, and they said take it or leave it.”
The woman added that she felt like the diocese treated her and other victims “like a dented fender or something,” and that she had lost respect for the church throughout the process.
De la Cruz has worked on other Catholic clergy settlement cases in the U.S. and said in sex abuse cases against “powerful entities like the church, or celebrities like Bill Cosby,” victims often show a mixture of feelings.
“One, there is some relief that the case is finally over,” he said. “More important, some of the survivors sometimes have feelings of accomplishment because they were able to speak truth to the church.”
The Great Falls-Billings Diocese bankruptcy was the 15th Catholic bankruptcy case in the United States.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.