Ten Plaintiffs File Civil Lawsuit against Roman Catholic Diocese of Great Falls-billings
By Rachel Ousley
February 9, 2012
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Great Falls-Billings has not been officially served today, but they are aware that ten plaintiffs have filed suit accusing members of the Catholic Church all over eastern Montana of sexual and physical abuse.
Lead attorney, Tim Kosnoff has been handling sex abuse cases against the Catholic Church for the last 16 years. After cases he handled in Washington and Oregon, more and more people are stepping forward to share their stories. Kosnoff describes the sexual abuse in Montana as the worst he has seen so far. He believes the plaintiffs in this lawsuit are just the tip of the iceberg. He explains, “we're talking about the rape and sodomy of 8, 9, 10, 11 year old boys and girls by Roman Catholic clergy, often accompanied by acts of physical abuse”.
Timothy Becker is one of the plaintiffs in this case. He was born in Billings, Montana, but spent most of his childhood living in Livingston, MT. It was here that he attended St. Mary’s Catholic School and trained as an alter boy at the parish. In the lawsuit, Becker accuses Father Ted Szudera of sexually abusing him when he was just fifteen years old.
Like many victims of abuse, Becker repressed this alleged abuse until in 2006 he began having flashbacks and nightmares triggered by memorabilia from his childhood. It was at this time that he approached the diocese with the story of his abuse. Becker says, “priests are just like everybody else, human beings, and they have to be accountable for what they do wrong”.
Unfortunately, he felt he met a brick wall with the diocese's review board. He did not find the investigation thorough and it was completed by members of a review board that is appointed by the Bishop. He says they provided a number of therapy sessions, put the blame on his father, and basically wished him luck in his recovery.
The diocese maintains this one accusation was in fact independently investigated and found not to be credible. Vicar General, Father Jay Peterson, explains, “we have very solid polices in place. We have a zero tolerance policy that is strictly enforced”. Their polices which can be found on their website offer the services of a victim assistance coordinator, outlines provisions on receiving complaints, and more. Peterson also states that the 3,000 people working and volunteering for the diocese undergo comprehensive background checks. A press release from the diocese states this lawsuit, similar to the one against Helena diocese, makes sweeping allegations in attempt to gain more claimants.
Kosnoff feels the diocese basically dismissed Becker’s allegations against Father Szudera in an attempt to cover up corruption within the church. The diocese, in this way, has continually failed the children they are entrusted with. Kosnoff and his team of attorneys believe that having a review board comprised of members that are connected to the Church is a conflict of interest and impairs the chance for an objective investigation. Attorney Leander James says, “it would seem common sense that an organization accused of sexually abusing a child, or one of its members is accused of sexually abusing a child, that it would necessitate an independent review by people not internal to the organization”.
The attorneys are asking the court to mandate reform, believing the diocese is incapable of addressing possible corruption. One of these mandates would create a Joint Task Force on Child Protection with the Attorney General of Montana to annually investigate and monitor the diocese.
Unfortunately the court has no power to rewind the hands of time. It can only offer monetary reward to victims and punitive damages designed to punish and deter future offenses. However, the attorneys say the real reward would be validation for the alleged victims and hope that there is an end in sight of the alleged abuse. Another attorney working on this case, Daniel Fasy, has met with many victims and while the initial opening up is obviously painful and difficult for many, it can be very therapeutic. He says, “the amazing transformation I get to see from the beginning when we meet with a survivor to the completion of the case is pretty profound. It’s a process of actually seeing someone get their voice”.
The goal of this lawsuit is to protect children. Becker says, “I’m hoping to make it aware that anybody this is abused needs to come forward and make it known that they can’t do this to any of God’s children”. The attorneys believe the accused Father Szudera is still active in the Church somewhere and hope anyone with information on his whereabouts will come forward. The attorneys believe that top stop one alleged abuser is the only way to ensure the safety of countless at risk children.
We'll continue to follow this lawsuit as it develops.