Settlement reached in Ursuline abuse suit

The Ursuline Sisters of the Western Province have reached a settlement in a lawsuit alleging nearly a dozen women religious from the order abused children on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana.

The case in Lewis and Clark County, Montana, was filed about the same time as a separate, but similar case against the Diocese of Helena, Montana, which alleged a covered-up of abuse by priests across the diocese. Settlements for both cases are now combined into one action awaiting the approval of the federal bankruptcy court in the district of Montana.

The lawsuit against the Ursulines alleged that 11 sisters who served at the St. Ignatius Mission church and school on the Flathead reservation from the 1940s to the early 1970s physically, sexually and emotionally abused boarding and day school students. The school is about 40 miles north of Missoula. The province, based in Santa Rosa, California, covers several western states.

The Ursuline settlement includes payment of $4.45 million to 232 plaintiffs. The diocese, meanwhile, settled for $16.5 million, with $14.5 million coming from insurers; the Ursulines did not have insurance, which led to protracted settlement talks. The Ursulines will file for bankruptcy and sell property and assets.

In terms of abuse allegations against women religious, the Ursuline case appears to be the largest ever filed, raising the number of alleged victims of sexual abuse attributed to women religious in the United States by more than half, from the approximately 400 known before the case was filed.

The suit often did not give the plaintiffs’ ages at the time the abuse is alleged to have occurred, but plaintiff include both boys and girls, with some as young as 5 at the time of the alleged abuse. At least one of the sisters accused in the Ursuline case is known to have died, as have some of the plaintiffs (the case was filed on behalf of their estates).

The original complaint, which was later amended to add plaintiffs but leave out the details of abuse, painted a horrifying picture of abuse occurring everywhere from the mother superior’s bedroom to the church confessional. It alleged sisters exposed themselves to children, fondled and molested them and forced them to commit sexual acts. The suit made similar allegations against 18 priests and brothers, alleging all of the above, as well as rape and sodomy.

An unnamed plaintiff told NBC Montana he wants people to know the lawsuit was not about getting rich. The settlement will pay about $20,000 to each victim.

“Because the money is the only thing that gives us our recognition, but it's not about the money, it's about just being brought to the light,” the man told the television station.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Vito de la Cruz, who represented about 80 of the 232 plaintiffs, said victims want something money can’t provide.

“When people say it’s not about the money, it usually isn’t about the money. They want to be heard, they want to be acknowledged and they want society, a judge or a jury to hear the case and decide, ‘Yes, you were wronged,’” de la Cruz said. “For many survivors that is the bigger, more rewarding form of any kind compensation they can get.”

But, he notes, financial compensation about the only relief the civil courts can provide.

“In a civil case, the only thing you can obtain is either financial compensation or injunctive orders not to do certain things,” de la Cruz said. “That’s all there is.”

Attempts to reach attorney John P. Christian, who represents the Ursuline Sisters of the Western Province were unsuccessful.

The bankruptcy court is set to rule on the settlement March 4.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook.]