HELENA – Attorneys for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena, an order of nuns and hundreds of alleged sex abuse victims said Tuesday they will try to hammer out a settlement during a mediation conference in April.
If the sides fail to reach a deal, the case will head to trial tentatively set for December of next year. Judge Jeffrey Sherlock would have to decide whether to hold individual or group trials for more than 300 plaintiffs.
That’s the number of people who have claimed they were abused as children by priests and nuns in western Montana. The claims go back as far as the 1940s.
The plaintiffs, many of them Native Americans, are from two combined lawsuits filed last year against the diocese and the Ursuline Sisters of the Western Province. They contend the diocese and the nuns knew or should have known about the abuse, but covered it up instead of stopping it.
One of the defendants, the Ursulines, is resisting having to appear before the mediator in Seattle for the week of April 15, claiming financial hardship and limited resources.
The cost of the mediation is expected to be about $20,000 and split between the parties.
Ursuline attorney Tom Johnson proposed instead making the nuns and their attorneys available by phone over the course of the talks.
Diocese attorneys Mike Patterson and Ron Waterman asked Sherlock to issue an order requiring that the Ursulines be present, saying the only way to settle the case is to ensure that everybody is represented in Seattle.
“We are going to be dealing with 319 claimants in a week’s time,” Waterman said. “It would seem to me that they need to be there.”
Johnson said the Ursulines already have made a settlement offer to each claimant but have gotten no response yet.
Sherlock did not make an immediate decision on the request to order all parties to the conference.
Last month, some of the church’s insurers and the alleged victims filed separate lawsuits seeking judges’ declarations on whether the insurers must cover the plaintiffs’ claims.
The complaint by three insurance companies led by Travelers Casualty and Surety Co. says the insurers have no obligation to defend the diocese or pay out any claims.
Despite the legal dispute, Patterson said the diocese’s insurers are fulfilling their obligations.
“The insurance companies are providing a full defense on behalf of the diocese, and we expect them to continue doing so,” Patterson said after Tuesday’s hearing.