The number of plaintiffs in two sexual abuse lawsuits filed against the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings has increased to 50, and lawyers in both suits predict that figure will grow.
Both civil suits have been filed in Cascade County District Court in Great Falls, home of the Roman Catholic Diocese, which had jurisdiction over the churches and the clergy named in the suits.
One lawsuit was filed by the Morales Law Office in Missoula and the Tamaki Law Offices in Yakima, Wash., in June 2012. It was filed on behalf of a Northern Cheyenne woman in her 60s who said she was repeatedly molested and raped as a young girl by the Rev. Emmett Hoffmann, longtime priest at St. Labre Mission School in Ashland. The Order of Friars Minor, Capuchin, to which Hoffmann belonged, also was named as a defendant.
The attorneys filed a second amended complaint in February 2013, which boosted the number of plaintiffs to six women and 11 men who claimed they had been sexually abused by Roman Catholic priests and nuns in central and Eastern Montana. The abuse was said to have taken place from as early as 1943, and included schools, missions, homes and churches in Ashland, Hays, St. Xavier and Harlem.
The most recent abuse was alleged to have occurred in 1993 to a boy living at the Cheyenne Home Orphanage by an older resident. A second plaintiff in the amended complaint named Hoffmann, who died in February 2013, as her abuser.
In addition to the diocese and the Order of Friars Minor, Capuchin, defendants added in the amended complaint include School Sisters of St. Francis, which has headquarters in Wisconsin, and the Congregation of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis/Oldenburg, whose headquarters are in Indiana.
Blaine Tamaki, whose law firm also represented plaintiffs in a claim against the Diocese of Helena, said earlier this week that his firm plans to file a third amended complaint totaling 30 plaintiffs within the next couple of months. His firm was also involved in the successful claim in 2011 against the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus.
“Based on our experience with the Northwest Jesuit claims, where there were over 500 claims, and then our experience with Helena involving the Diocese where the total was over 300, I would anticipate the total number of claims filed by all attorneys (in Great Falls) will exceed 100,” Tamaki said.
A second lawsuit was filed against the Great Falls-Billings Diocese in February 2012 on behalf of 10 plaintiffs who claimed that as children they were sexually abused by priests and nuns. An amended complaint added an additional 23 plaintiffs, and that number is expected to grow, said Tim Kosnoff, a Seattle attorney representing the plaintiffs.
Kosnoff’s firm is the lead counsel on behalf of a group of law firms in the suit, which includes Datsopoulos, MacDonald & Lind of Missoula, and also represented plaintiffs in the recently settled claim against the Helena diocese. He also was a plaintiff’s attorney in the successful claim against the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus.
“We’ve been so focused on Helena litigation, and that case started with 22 plaintiffs and now just our suit has over 280,” Kosnoff said. “Eastern Montana is sparsely populated, compared to Western Montana, so there are fewer priests, fewer parishes.”
But Kosnoff said he believes that once the attorneys start doing follow-up on the claims they already represent, the numbers will grow.
“I expect there will be a lot of cases coming in off of Crow and Northern Cheyenne and Rocky Boy and many of those reservations where the church had parishes and also sent in order priests to work with the Native populations,” he said.
Kosnoff added that the lawsuit against the Great Falls-Billings diocese hadn’t been served on the diocese until recently because his firm’s energies had been focused on the Helena claim.
As with the other lawsuit against Great Falls-Billings, this one involves priests and nuns at churches, missions and homes in northeastern, central and Eastern Montana, including Hays, St. Xavier, Absarokee, Great Falls, Wolf Point and Hardin, as well as in Livingston.
Great Falls attorney Greg Hatley, who represents the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, said the diocese was served with the Tamaki lawsuit in July 2012 “and we’re working through discovery in that case.”
The second suit, by Kosnoff’s firm, wasn’t served in mid-February, he said.
“So we’re just very new into that,” Hatley said. “We haven’t even filed an answer yet.”
Kosnoff said he had received signals from the diocese’s attorneys about a willingness to sit down and talk about the case “sooner than later,” something he called unusual for this early in the case.
“That could just be talk, but we take it as a positive sign,” he said.
Hatley said that because the second lawsuit has only just been served, the two sides are not engaged in any such discussion.
“But we’re always looking for a timely and appropriate resolution to these complaints, if we can arrive at that,” he said.
Hatley said that while he could not comment on details of the allegations in the suits, that the diocese has policies in place to enforce a zero tolerance for sexual misconduct, and it is committed to keeping children safe from inappropriate sexual behavior.
The diocese also continues to offer pastoral support and care needed by any victims of clergy sexual abuse, Hatley said.