Great Falls-billings Catholic Diocese Reaches Settlement with Sex Abuse Victims for $20 Million
By Seaborn Larson
Great Falls Tribune
April 27, 2018
The revelation that the Great Falls-Billings Diocese agreed to pay $20 million to sex abuse victims of past clergy should feel like a triumph to those affected by molestation. But, as a few victims put it Friday, money doesn’t solve problems like that.
“To me it means justice, to an extent,” one man said. “Nothing will ever take away the pain.”
Attorneys for the 86 people who filed claims of sexual abuse against the eastern Montana diocese announced Friday the parties agreed to a settlement of $20 million. The announcement comes just over a year after diocese filed for federal bankruptcy in order to reorganize its finances to reach such a deal, and seven years since the case was first filed in Cascade County District Court.
Since the bankruptcy filing, a group of eight victims, including Taylor, John and Marie, came forward to represent the victims' group in settlement talks. The Tribune does not name victims of sexual assault, so their names have been changed to maintain their anonymity.
"Taylor" said no amount of money will overcome the suffering from being sexually abused as a child by a priest, nun or church worker, but the settlement will help those whose lives have plunged into depression and addiction as a result of the abuse. The claims of abuse span from the 1940s into the 1990s; many of the victims are in their later years, and might not have survived to see the litigation go on much longer.
"Marie" agreed but said also that the settlement is one of few ways to shed light on the history of the issue.
“We’ve been just a hidden entity,” she said. “Nothing comes out until you hit them in the pocketbook.”
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Jim Papas has yet to approve the deal, although diocese officials have approved the financial terms of the settlement. The only remaining details yet to be approved by the church are the non-financial terms. In past cases, those terms have included the church naming the accused, issuing letters of apology and establishing new or updated efforts to prevent future abuse.
In a statement released Friday, Bishop Michael Warfel said a substantial amount of the settlement would come from the diocese’s insurer, Catholic Mutual, and the diocese with “additional financial assistance from other members of the Catholic community within the Diocese.”
“This is part of our continuing efforts to reconcile with survivors of childhood sex abuse while carrying on with the essential mission of the Church,” Warfel said. “We are hopeful that this settlement without the necessity of years of future litigation will continue the healing process with the abuse survivors.”
|Bishop Michael Warfel of the Great Falls-Billings Diocese, has insisted on compassion for the survivors of sexual abuse by church officials and laypeople. (Photo: TRIBUNE PHOTO/SEABORN LARSON)|
"John," another member of the committee to represent victims in settlement talks, said Friday he hid his experiences from his family, which was deeply entrenched in the Catholic community. Holding that suffering back translated into addiction problems with drugs and alcohol.
“I’ve always been scared of the church. I grew up to fear that church,” he said. “I lost the faith for a while.”
Eventually, he disclosed the abuse to his wife, who urged him to get involved in the Great Falls-Billings Diocese case, which was swelling with new claims at the time. He thought pursuing financial claims against the diocese would bring him relief, but he was wrong. Understanding more about the systemic issues that allowed abuses like his own to continue for so long only made his pain sharper, even after the settlement announcement.
“I’m still angry,” he said.
The claims of abuse spanned more than 60 years, according to court records. More than half of the claims came from more remote parishes on Montana’s Indian reservations.
Vito de la Cruz, a Washington attorney who has represented sex abuse victims in cases filed against dioceses across the Northwest, said the eastern Montana case underscored the church’s consistency in how it used to handle sexual predators in the church.
“We encountered the same kind of issues that we have encountered before: the problem priests and nuns being placed in the most vulnerable communities, going unsupervised as they committed the atrocities against children and then failing to recognize the problem until it’s too late,” he said.
Such cases seem to have emerged from as many corners of the world as the Catholic church exists. However, Cruz said there are places in the United States where such claims are still stifled due to statutes of limitations.
“I’m not sure that we have reached the end of an era,” he said. “There are still many states that have much more restrictive statutes of limitations where many victims will never see justice done.”
Some states, such as New York, Cruz said, are considering opening a window to allow victims of long-past sex abuse to make their claims in court.
“I think that is the next logical evolution of these cases,” Cruz said. “We’re hoping as things develop the law will evolve, the legislatures will evolve. There’s a lot of connection with current events… Who would have thought that somebody like Bill Cosby would finally have been brought to justice if it wasn’t for the movement of people speaking up, women speaking up, victims speaking up. It is possible.”
Missoula Attorney Molly Howard also represented victims of past sexual abuse by clergy in the Helena Diocese, which covers the western half of the state. The Great Falls-Billings Diocese settlement is similar in dollar amount to the one the Helena Diocese reached in 2015. In that case, however, more than 360 people received $21 million, a much smaller per-person share than in the Great Falls-Billings case, in which $20 million will be delivered to 86 people.
Howard said the Great Falls-Billings Diocese was in a much better financial position to reconcile with its victims than the Helena Diocese was.
Howard, herself raised Catholic, launched herself into these cases once victims started coming forward.
“I think it’s been, in my career, certainly, the greatest privilege I’ve had representing these sex abuse victims,” she told the Tribune. “They’ve shown an unbelievable amount of courage coming forward, in some cases decades after it happened.”
"John" said since those decades have passed he has lost faith in the church, but not religion.
“No, I’m not a Catholic anymore,” he said. “But I still believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.”
Ford Elsaesser, a bankruptcy attorney for the diocese, said he expects the plan to be approved and finalized after approximately four months from the next hearing, which is set for May 8. The diocese anticipates at least $18 million of the proposed settlement will be funded shortly after the plan’s confirmation, with any remaining balance to be paid within 30 months.
Bishop Warfel told the Tribune in an interview last year that church officials undergo extensive training to prevent potential abuses from taking place, and employee processes to prevent potential abusers from entering positions of power within the church. Today an independent review board made up of active Catholic church members review church policy after complaints are handled. Warfel said he believes the board’s connection to the church doesn’t hinder its ability to be independent in its decision-making.
Several attorneys who spoke to the Tribune on Friday commended the eight-person committee made of victims to represent the entire 86 for their commitment to work for the group, rather than their own interests. For "Taylor," that commitment needed no praise.
“It gave me an opportunity for all those silent who will never be heard,” he said. “On behalf of all souls who were abused but not here: we tried to do something for you.”
During the bankruptcy process, diocese attorneys repeatedly mentioned the harm a large settlement would do to the parishes spread out in eastern Montana with limited financial means. "Marie" said, instead, the settlement should put those parishes on notice.
“I hope as an outcome of this… the parishes will take notice,” she said. “It’s not going to be forgotten anymore. (Abusers) will be prosecuted and there won’t be so many victims like us.”