Attorney Hopes New Pope Means New Victim Approach

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — An attorney representing dozens of Native Americans in one of two sex-abuse lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena said he hopes a new pope will mean a new approach by the church in dealing with victims.

But Pope Francis appears to be a conservative in a time when more transparency is needed, lawyer Blaine Tamaki said Thursday.

“We are very concerned the church needs to have a pope who is more progressive than they have had in the past, and the new pope appears to be one of those keeping the conservative doctrine of the Catholic church in place,” he said.

Tamaki’s clients claim they were sexually abused by nuns and priests in western Montana from the 1940s to the 1970s. That lawsuit has been combined with another that claims the Helena diocese covered up abuse for decades, and there now are more than 300 plaintiffs involved in the suits.

Helena Bishop George Leo Thomas released a statement congratulating Pope Francis that did not directly address the lawsuits or claims of sexual abuse.

“He has a reputation as a bridge builder, promoting dialogue and mediation in the face of conflict. Nor was he known to shy away from difficult issues that impinge,” Thomas said.

Settlement talks have been taking place between the plaintiffs’ attorneys and those of the Helena diocese, and a mediation conference is set for April. Insurers of the diocese have balked at paying the claims, spurring additional lawsuits and complicating the prospects for a settlement.

Tamaki said he has not communicated with the diocese or its lawyers since the new pope was named.

“We don’t expect any change of direction anytime soon just because a new pope was selected,” he said. “We’re trying to have a dialogue with the Catholic Church in Montana about the settlement of cases in a way that will treat the victims with respect, compassion and fairness.”

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