By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - A Montana Roman Catholic diocese has asked a judge to approve a bankruptcy reorganization plan that includes a $16.4 million settlement for hundreds of adults claiming childhood sexual abuse by clergy and lay workers, attorneys said on Tuesday.
The Helena diocese, serving some 44,500 Catholics in 57 parishes and 38 missions in western Montana, including the state capital, is the 11th U.S. diocese to file for Chapter 11 protection since 2004 due to liabilities stemming from abuse claims.
Under the agreement, which must be approved by a U.S. bankruptcy court, the church would contribute $2 million and its insurance carriers $14.4 million to settle claims brought by 362 people who filed two lawsuits against the diocese in 2011, said Dan Fasy, an attorney with one of four firms representing the plaintiffs.
The settlement was reached after years of negotiated mediation between the church and victims of childhood sexual abuse.
Fasy said the deal represented “one step in the healing process” for children molested by priests, nuns and others on church property, at parochial schools, during church-sponsored outings and at homes of victims by visiting clergy.
“It’s been a long time in coming, but it’s a step toward closure for a lot of people,” he said.
The diocese released a statement on Tuesday saying it would have no comment on the plan because of legal prohibitions tied to bankruptcy filings but confirmed the reorganization proposal had been jointly filed by the church and its creditors, including the plaintiffs.
Helena Bishop George Leo Thomas said earlier this year none of those “credibly” accused were now active in the ministry and most were dead.
“I express my profound sorrow and sincere apologies to anyone who was abused by a priest, sister or a lay church worker,” he said in a statement.
The settlement does not include the Ursuline Sisters, also defendants in the case against the Helena diocese. Claims leveled at the sisters are tied to Native Americans who allege they were abused decades ago as students in Montana schools overseen by the order.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman from Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Steve Gorman and Paul Tait)