Dozens sue church over alleged abuse in Montana

By Matt Volz
Helena, Montana (AP) October 2011

Several dozen people are suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena over sexual abuse they say they suffered as children at the hands of clergy members in western Montana.

The 34 men and women, who now range in age from 45 to 73, say the diocese must answer for what they claim is its “gross negligence” in the alleged abuse by at least eight clergy members, including six priests and two nuns, that took place from the late 1940s through the 1970s in St. Ignatius, Missoula and Arlee.

More alleged victims may be added as the case progresses, said Molly Howard, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs.

“We have no way of knowing right now how many other people are out there,” Howard said.

The lawsuit was filed in Helena District Court. The plaintiffs are demanding unspecified monetary compensation plus a long list of remedial actions that include the publication of the names of all sexual abusers in the diocese and the formation of a task force headed by the state’s attorney general to investigate and monitor all diocesan institutions for sexual abuse.

The list of remedies is based in part on suggestions by the victims, and also includes demands that every high school in the diocese display a plaque that says abuse shall not be tolerated, plus a requirement for all diocesan employees to sign an annual statement that they have not abused a minor and have no knowledge of anybody else doing so.

“We recognize that there will be people out there who believe these people are coming forward with the idea that there is a positive financial outcome for them,” Howard said. “Their primary concern is making sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Diocese spokeswoman Renee St. Martin Wizeman said in a news conference that church lawyers were examining the lawsuit. None of the clergy members named in the suit were part of the diocese but were members of the Jesuit and Ursuline orders that were assigned to those schools, she said.

All diocesan employees who work with children must go through training to recognize signs of sexual abuse and how to deal with it, she said.

The plaintiffs, most of whom now live in Montana and Washington state, say they were repeatedly raped, fondled or forced to perform sexual acts while at school, on the playground, on camping trips or at the victims’ homes. Much of the alleged abuse was centered in Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Missoula.

The lawsuit charges that the clergy members groomed and then abused the children while being shielded by the diocese, which knew or should have known the threat they posed.

Instead of defrocking the priests, church officials shuttled them from parish to parish to avoid detection and scandal, intentionally assigning them to remote or rural locations where they could harm children, the plaintiffs’ lawyers allege.

All of the alleged abusers are believed to be dead, Howard said, though the lawsuit asks the court to require the diocese to account for them.

St. Martin Wizeman said it appears the plaintiffs in this case were among the hundreds of Native Americans and Alaska Natives who brought claims against the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, which earlier this year agreed to pay $166 million to drop the lawsuit alleging sex abuse in Catholic-run schools across the Northwest and Alaska.

“I wouldn’t presume to know what their motivations are,” St. Martin Wizeman said.

About half of the plaintiffs in this case were also plaintiffs in the Oregon lawsuit, Howard said.

But the Helena diocese has never answered for its negligence in these cases, and none of the plaintiffs has reached individual settlements with the diocese, Howard said.

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