18 new plaintiffs have added their names to a sexual assault lawsuit pending against Montana’s largest Roman Catholic Diocese, the Diocese of Helena. That brings the number of plaintiffs to 76 for this lawsuit, which has been active since last fall. These plaintiffs claim they were sexually abused by Church clergy as children in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s.
Attorney for the plaintiffs, Vito de la Cruz says it’s common that child victims of sexual abuse at the hands of authority figures wait so long to come forward.
“These children, adults now, they waited so long because they suffered in silence, they suffered alone,” de la Cruz said.
He says when an abuser is a priest or a nun, it’s especially traumatic. He recounted the story of a woman placed at St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Helena.
“After a series of very long interviews,” he said, “and hour two hours, three hours of constantly working with her. She says you know, one of the things that kept me from saying anything is cause I never thought anyone else suffered this way. I thought I was the only one. And that’s so typical and it’s so sad.”
The 76 plaintiffs now in this lawsuit allege abuse in Catholic organizations across the Diocese, from the larger cities to small communities like St. Ignatius. De la Cruz says the more word spreads about this lawsuit, the more victims come forward. He says the list of plaintiffs in this case will keep growing. The Helena Diocese says most of the clergy implicated in this lawsuit are deceased and not one is still in active ministry.
Diocese Communications Director Renee St. Martin Wizeman says the Church has done a lot in the past decade to address this problem. She points to Bishop George Leo Thomas’s open door policy, extending an offer to meet one on one with any victim. The Church also now runs a safe-environment program that helps anyone working with the Church learn to recognize signs of sexual abuse.
“We acknowledge this has been a problem in the past and one we are absolutely committed to eradicating within our own parishes but also in affecting society overall,” Wizeman.
The plaintiffs and the church hope to settle the lawsuit out of court by this November. The Helena Diocese is also facing a second, similar lawsuit from another group of plaintiffs.
Montana’s other Diocese, the Diocese of Great Falls—Billings also has two pending sexual assault lawsuits.