HELENA — More than 50 priests in western Montana, most of whom are dead, will be named as sexual abusers of children if a legal settlement is approved, an attorney for plaintiffs suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena said.
Meanwhile, two pending sexual-abuse lawsuits against the state’s other Roman Catholic diocese, the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, have grown to include a total of 50 plaintiffs who say they were abused.
The proposed settlement agreement between the Helena diocese and 362 people who claim they were abused as children from the 1940s to the 1970s calls for those credibly accused clergy members to be listed on the diocese’s website.
“They wanted their abusers to be publicly identified and for the diocese to accept responsibility,” Tim Kosnoff, an attorney in one of the two lawsuits against the diocese, told Lee Newspapers of Montana. “By that aspect, I think we’ve succeeded.”
Most, if not all of the priests, are dead, attorneys for the plaintiffs said.
George Thomas, bishop of the Helena diocese, said he doesn’t expect a fight over naming abusers.
“I give the benefit of the doubt to the accuser,” he said. “The one thing I want to punctuate is that I have been committed from the beginning to transparency. There are no names that I will hold in secret.”
The settlement also might include documents that discuss the knowledge of diocese officials who knew or might have known about the abuse, plaintiffs’ attorneys said. However, these officials won’t be held personally liable.
The proposed $15 million settlement is in U.S. Bankruptcy Court after the diocese filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in January. The diocese was in dire financial straits before the sexual-abuse lawsuits, and a financial reorganization was inevitable, Thomas said.
Bankruptcy documents show the diocese’s assets are around half of its liabilities. The diocese has paid around $9 million in past sex-abuse claims, Thomas said.
The diocese also runs a loan fund, in which parishes pool savings for capital projects, which is underfunded by more than $5 million. The diocese has around $262,000 in bank accounts for the fund, bankruptcy filings show.
One of the diocese’s goals during the bankruptcy proceedings will be to find a way to return money to parishes over time, but that might not be possible, diocese attorney Ford Elsaesser said.
A hearing in the bankruptcy case is set for March 19.
The Helena diocese covers the western part of Montana, while the Great Falls-Billings diocese covers the eastern part.
A lawsuit filed against the Great Falls-Billings diocese in 2012 by a woman who claimed she was abused has been amended to include six women and 11 men as plaintiffs.
Attorney Blaine Tamaki, who also represents plaintiffs in one of the Helena diocese lawsuits, told the Billings Gazette more victims likely will be added in the coming months.
Kosnoff filed a second lawsuit against the Great Falls-Billings that includes 33 plaintiffs, and more are expected to be added, Kosnoff said.
Great Falls attorney Greg Hatley, who represents Great Falls-Billings diocese, said the diocese is working through the discovery process in the Tamaki lawsuit and has not yet filed an answer to the Kosnoff lawsuit.
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