Helena Diocese says allegation from 2001 of abuse of minor made against priest

KWYB-TV, MontanaRightNow.com [Butte MT]

October 31, 2022

The Diocese of Helena said Monday it has received an accusation of abuse of a minor in 2001 against Father Kevin Christofferson.

Bishop Austin A. Vetter notified law enforcement and placed Christofferson on administrative leave on Oct. 27, which was keeping with diocesan policy, and in consultation with the Diocesan Review Board.

Upon the conclusion of any law enforcement investigation, and per diocesan policy, the diocese will do a third-party investigation into the accusation, diocese officials said in a news release.

Christofferson is not permitted to have contact with minors and will refrain from administrative responsibilities and priestly duties.

Christofferson has not been charged with any crime, diocese officials said, adding accused people “are justly considered innocent until proven guilty.”

“I ask that you join me as we pray together for those who are directly involved, and everyone affected by this difficult situation,” Vetter said in a news release.

Christofferson was among the four priests who received backlash for wearing clerical garbs near the front of a Trump rally in Great Falls in 2018.

The Diocese of Helena website has a list of all accused personnel for transparency sake. It notes that of the 417 priests ordained for the Diocese of Helena, 20 have been accused of sexual abuse of a minor, one has been acquitted. Christofferson is not on the list as of Monday. The Diocese would not say where Christofferson was serving in 2001, but he was most recently serving Immaculate Conception Church in Polson.

Montana has been working on getting rid of the statutes of limitations for prosecuting perpetrators of child sexual abuse since 2013. At the 66th Montana Legislature, House Bill No. 640 amended Montana state law to allow victims of childhood sexual abuse to bring civil lawsuits forward for cases decades old.

The diocese filed for bankruptcy on Jan. 31, 2014, due to spending around $2.5 million in legal fees and establishing a $21 million fund to compensate past and future victims. The Diocese did not challenge the validity of any abuse claim among the 362 filed, according to the National Catholic Reporter.

On Monday, the diocese shared its Safe Environment Policy , updated July 1, that outlines reporting procedures in cases of abuse. The 59-page document says a background search is required for anyone employed by the Catholic Church before being hired and then again every five years after. All clerics, church workers and volunteers are mandatory reporters—the only exception is when a priest is in the Sacrament of Penance.

The church lists its first obligation is healing and reconciliation with victims of abuse of minors. The diocese said it reaches out to the victim, usually through a victim advocate. The diocese said it can provide payment for counseling if it is determined that the offender is affiliated with the church at the time of abuse. When possible, the offender is primarily responsible for the victim’s expenses.

Prior to coming to the diocese, priests must get a letter of suitability for ministry from their bishop or religious superior. In this letter, the bishop or religious superior must specify that there has been no founded accusations or convictions involving abuse of a minor against the cleric.

The Canonical Process for investigating a report of abuse within the church is a human resources director does an initial brief investigation to see if the complaint merits a more formal investigation. If the complaint is substantially verified, the complainant and accused person will be informed. The accused will be placed on administrative leave with regular salary and benefits still provided.

The bishop may request the accused priest to comply with an appropriate medical and psychological evaluation. All appropriate steps are taken so that the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The accused is encouraged to seek civil and canonical counsel throughout the investigation.

Diocese officials said that if people know someone who is a victim, or suspected victim, of abuse by Diocese of Helena personnel or clergy, report the incident to law enforcement and the Diocesan Victim’s Advocate, who can be reached at 406-459-0513.