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Helena Diocese filing for bankruptcy in wake of child sex-abuse lawsuits

Erik Madsen/flickr

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena is filing for bankruptcy protection as part of a settlement in lawsuits over child sex abuse. It’s the 11th diocese in the nation to seek bankruptcy after similar claims.

Allegations against The Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena stem from a period between the late 1930s and the 1970s. Hundreds of victims say clergy members sexually abused them at that time while the church covered it up. Most of the clergy implicated in the suit have since died. None remain in active ministry.

The $15 million settlement will be paid mostly by the church’s insurance. Diocese spokesman Dan Bartleson said the bankruptcy is necessary for the church to survive moving forward while still attempting to make amends for what happened in the past.

“We’re in a situation where we are cutting back personnel, were stopping building projects, we’re cutting back programs,” he said.

Bartleson said the bankruptcy settlement was negotiated with the plaintiffs’ attorneys and that it is not an attempt to shirk responsibility for the abuse.

“I don’t think this issue is going to close anytime soon for any Diocese that has this issue,” Bartleson said. “What we’re just hoping is that we can continue to do a good job handling this issue in a pastoral way and to also go forward and exist as a church for the faithful.”

A $2.5 million fund will be set aside for additional victims who come forward later. Attorney Vito de la Cruz represents one group of victims in the lawsuits. He said plaintiffs will now vote on whether to accept the settlement. That vote should come in by this Summer at the latest.

“I don’t think anyone can ever put a value on being repeatedly raped and sexually abused as a child,” de la Cruz said, but said this is probably the best deal the victims could get with the church.

There is a non-monetary side to the settlement as well. The Diocese has to publicly apologize to each of the victims and set up a hotline for people to report instances of sexual abuse.

The settlement does not include the Ursuline Academy in St. Ignatius. It’s alleged a group of nuns there abused dozens of Native American children. De la Cruz says the Ursulines have not yet agreed to settle.

At this point, that part of the suit is still moving forward to trial.  

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