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Montana Diocese reaches $20M settlement with abuse victims

April 27, 2018

FILE - In this Jan. 16, 2008, file photo, Bishop Michael Warfel, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, speaks before communion during his installation as the seventh bishop of the diocese at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Great Falls, Mont. On Friday, April 27, 2018, the diocese and two law firms announced a tentative $20 million settlement with 86 victims of childhood abuse at the hands of clergy. A bankruptcy judge and victims must still approve the settlement. (Casey Page/The Billings Gazette via AP, file)

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The Roman Catholic Diocese of Great Falls-Billings reached a $20 million agreement to settle claims by 86 people who said they were sexually abused as children by clergy employed by the Montana diocese dating back to the 1950s, officials said Friday.

The abuse happened at the hands of dozens of priests, deacons and at least one nun in Native American reservations and in towns and cities throughout the diocese’s territory across eastern Montana, attorneys for about half of the plaintiffs said.

The victims are now adults, many of them elderly, and some have died waiting for the case to be resolved, said attorney Craig Vernon.

“The money is symbolic,” Vernon said. “The diocese is finally taking responsibility — it’s a big step toward letting them heal.”

The diocese last year filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization protection to negotiate a settlement of the two lawsuits first filed in 2012, but the prospects of reaching a deal seemed dim as recently as last month.

The sides broke the impasse to reach the agreement calling for the $20 million victims’ trust fund, a separate fund for future claims and unspecified nonmonetary terms to be worked out at a later date.

The settlement agreement will be included in the diocese’s bankruptcy reorganization plan, which must be approved by the 86 victims or their estates and by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Jim Pappas. Final approval is expected within the next four months, said Bishop Michael Warfel.

At least $18 million will be paid into the fund upon final approval, with the balance to be paid within 30 months.

“This is part of our continuing efforts to reconcile with the survivors of childhood sex abuse while carrying on with the essential mission of the church,” Warfel said in a statement.

The diocese will not have to close any churches or sell property being used for its ministry to pay its share of the settlement, Chancellor Darren Eultgen said. Some “excess” property not being used for ministerial purposes may be sold, he said.

If approved, it will be the second sex abuse settlement involving a Catholic diocese in Montana in recent years.

In 2015, a bankruptcy judge approved a $21.5 million trust for approximately 360 sexual abuse victims in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena, which covers the western half of the state.

Vernon and plaintiffs’ attorney Lee James said they expected the nonmonetary terms of the settlement to be in line with the Helena settlement.

That settlement included a written apology by the bishop, identification of the accused clergy on the diocese’s website, the creation of a sex abuse hotline for parishioners and sex abuse treatment resources for them.

Eultgen said none of those details has been worked out yet. He did not know how many clergy members were accused, but said most are dead and none of the living clergy are in active ministry.

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