The Diocese of Great Falls/Billings has agreed to settle 86 sexual abuse claims for $20 million, ending a lawsuit that began in 2011. The lawsuit alleges that multiple priests and nuns working for the diocese sexually abused children from the 1950s through the 1990s.
The Diocese filed for bankruptcy in March of 2017, just months before the first of many jury trials were scheduled to begin. The cases that would have been tried first involved Fr. Joseph Heretick. In that case, Plaintiffs alleged that the Diocese knew that Fr. Heretick was a danger to children, ignoring complaints from parents about his conduct around children. Documents produced in the lawsuit revealed that the Bishop of the Great Falls Diocese sent Fr. Heretick to a treatment center for pedophile priests in the 1980s and that the treatment center recommended that Heretick not be put back in the ministry. Plaintiffs alleged that the Bishop ignored these recommendations.
Settlement discussions continued throughout the bankruptcy and resulted in a settlement on April 24, 2018, after a mediation before the Honorable Gregory Zive, a bankruptcy judge who agreed to serve as the mediator in the case.
Tamaki Law Offices represents 38 of the 86 plaintiffs, more than any other law firm in the case, and was lead counsel on the first cases set for trial. Tamaki Law attorneys also served as lead counsel in the bankruptcy case, representing 4 of the 8 members of the Creditor’s Committee (comprised of abuse survivors) who negotiated the final settlement with the Diocese.
This is the 15th bankruptcy filed by a Catholic Diocese in the U.S. and follows a bankruptcy filed by the Diocese of Helena (covering Western Montana) in 2012.
According to Tamaki Law attorney Vito de la Cruz, “the abuse my clients suffered at the hands of Diocesan and religious order priests and nuns has caused profound suffering, hardship, and despair over their entire lives. However, after seven years of litigation, and facing the prospect of trying 86 separate jury trials which would have taken years if not decades, my clients are hopeful that this small measure of justice and accountability will bring peace and healing to the abuse survivors who had the courage to come forward and tell their story.”
According to Tamaki Law Attorney Bryan G. Smith, “Our clients have carried the weight of sexual abuse and betrayal at the hands of trusted clergy for decades. While no amount of money can make up for the anguish they have endured over the years, this payment by the Diocese of Great Falls Billings is an acknowledgment of wrongdoing, which is an important part of the healing process for my clients. It is through this type of acknowledgment and accountability that positive changes are made, which results in safer environments for children.”
According to Blaine L. Tamaki, the founder of Tamaki Law, who was also lead counsel in the Society of Jesus, Oregon Province bankruptcy which resulted in a record-breaking settlement of $167 million, “Every abuse survivor, in this case, should be commended for their courage to come forward and tell their story. They suffered in silence for so long, thinking they were alone, but through this case, they were able to have a voice and be heard, acknowledged, and validated, which is such an important part of the healing process.”
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