The Diocese of Great Falls-Billings is awaiting the result of a vote by plaintiffs on whether to accept a $20 million settlement offered to 86 people who say they were sexually abused by 27 priests in the diocese. As a condition of the settlement, the names of those priests would be posted on the diocese’s website for at least ten years.
Litigation began six years ago, and in 2017 the diocese filed for bankruptcy protection as it began negotiating the settlement. If the plaintiffs accept the settlement, funds will come from insurance coverage, parishioner contributions, and the sale of diocesan property, the Billings Gazette reported.
The plaintiffs in the case say there were abused by priests between 1943 and 1993.
The monetary portion of the settlement was offered in April, and a proposal to list the names of abusive priests online was added to settlement paperwork in a court filing July 3. The settlement would also require that the diocese post statements from victims of abuse on its website for a period of two years, and that diocesan bishop Bishop Michael Warfel meet individually with any abuse survivor who requests a meeting.
The proposed settlement would also prohibit the diocese from opposing legislative measures that would change Montana’s criminal or civil statutes of limitations for sexual offenses against children.
"Basically what the diocese wants to do is be a source of healing, especially when a minister of the diocese has been a cause of hurt, wanting to somehow rectify that," Warfel told the Billings Gazette.
"And so being present to hear from people, to listen to people, to extend sorrow and apology is all just a pastoral part of that."
Two-thirds of the plaintiffs in the suit must vote in favor of the proposed settlement. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Aug. 14, at which time the settlement could be formally agreed upon.
There are nearly 40,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, spread over an area more than twice the size of Ohio. In 2015, the diocese had 51 parishes, 78 priests, and one seminarian. Bishop Michael Warfel was appointed to the diocese in 2007.