Missoula Attorneys: Helena Diocese Shows Willingness to Reform in Sex Abuse Settlement

The Missoulian
May 4, 2015

[Non-monetary commitments]

Bishop George Leo Thomas of the Helena Diocese is seen in this file photo.

Although hundreds of sexual abuse victims who sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena stand to share a $20 million settlement, a pair of Missoula attorneys who represented the survivors say the non-monetary portion of the settlement – including a requirement that churches establish a “whistleblower” policy – is equally important.

Milt Datsopoulos and Molly Howard of the Missoula law firm Datsopoulos, MacDonald and Lind represented many of the plaintiffs in the case, which began in 2011 when more than 360 abuse victims filed suit against the clergy, alleging that more than 80 ordained priests, Ursuline Sisters and other church employees committed everything from rape to fondling to illegal photography of children.

The alleged abuse occurred from the 1940s to the 1970s at various parishes all over the Northwest, but a majority happened at the St. Ignatius Mission and the Ursuline Academy in St. Ignatius.

None of the alleged perpetrators were ever charged with a crime because of the statute of limitations.

In March, a U.S. bankruptcy judge approved a $20 million payment plan to settle the case, which was sealed to protect the identity of the victims. The settlement also included many non-financial stipulations, including:

A requirement that the church post on its website the names of all known past and present alleged perpetrators of the diocese who are identified in the complaints.

The diocese will never seek to direct, pay or hire any agent, employee or third party to retract, oppose or challenge the constitutionality or legitimacy of any reform of a civil or criminal statute of limitations, or to eliminate the existing mandatory child abuse reporting statutory requirements or other laws which serve to shield child sexual abusers from investigation, apprehension, prosecution and conviction in Montana or similar legislation or law in any other state or jurisdiction.

The church must provide a phone number and email address to which anonymous abuse complaints can be made and the church will report any complaints to law enforcement.

The diocese must adopt a whistleblower policy outlining the method by which a person can file a report of abuse within the church without fear of retaliation.

The bishop of Helena will visit each deanery in which abuse occurred or where identified abusers served – including Missoula – and provide a forum for abuse survivors to ask questions or present comments.

The church will make space on its website for survivors to tell their stories if they wish, and the diocese will send letters of apology to all claimants, stating that they were not at fault for the abuse.

The church will make every effort to require that its employees and representatives not refer to any of the sexual abuse claimants or plaintiffs as “alleged” claimants, “alleged” victims or “alleged” survivors.

The church must institute background checks and psychological evaluations for seminarians in implement initiatives, such as VIRTUS training, to prevent abuse from happening again.


Datsopoulos and Howard said that they believe the church has acted admirably in the way it has taken accountability for the actions of its leaders in the past.

“The non-monetary portions of the settlement that the church has assumed to accomplish, one being the publication of the names, were a very important and major part of our settlement from the standpoint of our clients,” Datsopoulos said. “I think the church here has taken a position that is in my view admirable in acknowledging responsibility for all the victims, and for the first time I think agreed to face the issues head-on and really make some meaningful changes.

"That part of the settlement has really not been addressed from the media standpoint, but I think it’s something that has public interest and something that our clients were very insistent on including, as many of them are in this lawsuit to make sure this kind of stuff never happens to any more kids that are involved in the Catholic Church.”

Datsopoulos also praised the way Bishop George Leo Thomas of the Helena Diocese has handled the situation.

“Bishop Thomas’ acceptance of responsibility in large measure has adopted the new philosophy of the pope in terms of what their responsibility is and addresses the people that have no influence and no financial resources,” he explained. “I think this settlement follows that path and I really compliment the church on agreeing to things that were difficult to agree to.”

That doesn’t mean that the financial settlement was insignificant either.

“The diocese settled this case for more money than they actually had and forced them into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and in addition they committed to change some policies in those non-monetary conditions,” Datsopoulos added. “There were numerous victims that had never disclosed this sexual misbehavior to their parents or wives, and it was a very difficult decision to make. Which is why I think there was some focus on the monetary conditions, which they negotiated, to benefit other people that might come forward down the road.”

A $920,000 trust will be established for victims who come forward in the future.

The average age of the victims at the time of abuse was 10 years old, with about half of them women, and most are now between 50 and 69 years old. Most claimants supported the diocese’s bankruptcy reorganization plan in a vote earlier this year.








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