Montana diocese files for bankruptcy ahead of trial

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An attorney representing nearly half of the 72 survivors who suffered sexual abuse and rape at the hands of priests and nuns in rural Montana say the church’s decision to file for bankruptcy is a step in the right direction.

The Diocese of Great Falls-Billings on Friday filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in federal court, effectively setting in motion the process to reorganize its assets toward a settlement in a lawsuit in which more than 20 religious community leaders sexually abused at least 72 victims in eastern Montana over the course of several decades.

Vito de la Cruz, an attorney with Tamaki Law representing 34 of the 72 victims, said the bankruptcy filing marks an incremental win for his clients. He said he expects the diocese to begin negotiating an appropriate financial settlement with the court in August or September of this year.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said.

Following the bankruptcy filing, the courts will appoint a creditors committee to exchange information with the diocese to land at a settlement that will compensate the victims and allow the church to continue operations.

Elsaesser Jarzabek Anderson Elliott and MacDonald, the Sandpoint, Idaho firm representing the diocese in the bankruptcy filing, did not return calls for comment.

The bankruptcy filing is the latest chapter in a suit filed by the victims in 2012. The suit that listed the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings as the defendant was later consolidated with a second suit, which listed the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, the School of Sisters of Saint Francis of St. Joseph Covenant as defendants.

The suit alleges that the Catholic Church refused to remove offending priests and nuns from their clerical duties in remote and rural Montana, and permitted, if not required, bishops and other leaders to participate in a pattern of shuttling pedophiles from parish to parish to avoid detection and scandal, resulting in the sexual abuse and rape of dozens of victims.

The suit identifies the names of several priests, a nun and a number of unknown priests, totaling more than 20 perpetrators who abused children, enabled as a result of the diocese’s misconduct.

Unnamed victims in the complaint alleged abuse in Great Falls, Hays, Wolf Point, Harlem, Ashland and several more.

Trial had been set for July 10 of this year. Cruz said negotiations toward the settlement had initiated when the lawsuit was first filed, but had picked up steam in the last month.

“I believe the primary motivation was the looming trial date and perhaps recognition of the diocese of a potentially substantial judgment against them by a jury,” Cruz told the Tribune.

Cruz said the abuse is said to have occurred during the 1950s through the 1980s, and the ages of the survivor ranges between late 40s and early 70s. He said the victims are a diverse group: many are Native American, while some are white. Most of the victims were students in mission schools or participants in a church at the time of their assaults, he said, and many still carry the trauma with them at least 30 years later.

“A lot of them have lifelong struggles with a variety of emotional and psychological issues of trauma that spring from the sexual abuse,” he said. “The mix is fairly diverse. Some of them are successful, and some are not. Some are so burdened that they could not succeed in life.”

Many survivors have reported having flashbacks and nightmares; issues that affect the relationships in their everyday lives, Cruz said.

The gravity of their abuse is weighted by the shock of being abused by those highest in their religious communities, which in many cases are the centralized hubs throughout eastern Montana, Cruz said.

One of his clients told him that, prior to the abuse he believed that “One of the only things a man has in life is spirituality.”

“He had that stripped of him because he was raped by a priest,” Cruz said flatly. “It tends to make people question the things they grow up with.”

In many cases, victims don’t feel like they can reach out to anyone else in their community, not even their parents, Cruz said. Many of Cruz’s clients say priests threatened them to keep quiet, using sentiments like “No one’s going to believe you,” or “God told me to do it,” giving the victim a sense that the priest or nun has immunity.

“Consider what that does to a child’s psyche,” Cruz said.

The Diocese of Great Falls-Billings on Friday issued a statement on Facebook.

“On behalf of the entire Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, I express my profound sorrow and sincere apologies to anyone who was abused by a priest, a sister, or a lay Church worker,” said Bishop Michael Warfel of the diocese in a prepared statement published on Facebook. “No child should experience harm from anyone who serves in the Church.”

Warfel added: “I want to assure you that none of those who have been credibly accused remain active in parish ministry at this time. In fact, nearly all of those accused are deceased.”

The statement says the diocese has, for two decades, installed abuse prevention programs, including screening and training for employees, volunteers, priests and seminarians, and that the church has an independent board to review abuse reports.

Attorneys from five other firms representing victims in the case issued a joint statement on Friday following the bankruptcy filing.

“While we had hoped to obtain justice for our clients at trial, we are hopeful that the Diocese bankruptcy will result in non-monetary terms for the protection of children and the monetary recognition of the tragedies endured by victims.”

The statement noted that the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings is the 15th Diocesan bankruptcy in the U.S. One of those bankruptcy filings includes the Diocese of Helena, which has jurisdiction over the western half of Montana, while the Great Falls-Billings diocese holds authority over the eastern half.

In the suit filed against the Helena diocese in 2014, 362 people claimed to have been abused priests, nuns and lay workers. The bankruptcy in that suit produced a $21 million fund for victims in the suit.

Cruz said it’s too early to estimate the size of settlement the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings will produce this fall, but said the final amount should not cause the church to close its operations.

“Our goal has never been to break the diocese,” Cruz said. “We know the church does good work in the most part. [The bankruptcy and settlement] can allow them to continue to do good work.”

Cruz’s firm has handled several cases like this one, involving victims of sexual abuse by church officials. He said the history of such cases involving the Catholic Church illustrate systemic issues within the religious institutions that allowed such abuse to occur over decades without consequence.

“The church for the longest time wasn’t held accountable,” Cruz said. “The commonalities bridge from one diocese to another. It’s frighteningly common to have these facts come out.”

To read the article in the Great Falls Tribune, click here.