GREAT FALLS - The bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Great Falls-Billings is now responding to a new filing in the diocese's bankruptcy case.
In that lawsuit, attorneys for 86 victims who were sexually abused by eastern Montana priests dating back to the 1950s contend that as much as $70 million of church assets should be included as part of the bankruptcy estate.
Those assets include 14 parishes within the Great Falls-based diocese, four in Billings.
While the plaintiffs contend those assets should be available for the settlement, the diocese maintains the parishes are held in trust by the diocese and are therefore exempt.
"The distinction is we are under the corporation of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Great Falls. All the parishes come under that cooperation, but we hold assets only in trust, we don’t own any of the parish assets. And that’s the contention,” Bishop Michael Warfel told MTN News Wednesday.
Attorney Jim Stang, who represents the 86 victims, said Wednesday his goal is to reach a settlement with the diocese.
He told MTN news that under Montana law, the parishes do not exist on their own, and those assets should be available to creditors.
But in the end, that issue will be decided by a federal bankruptcy judge.
Bishop Warfel says the Great Falls-Billings diocese will challenge these latest claims.
"What I want people to know is we truly want to address the hurt of people who were victimized long ago. It goes back quite a few years for most cases, but still the hurt is there. I want to address that in an equitable manner. At the same time, we also want to continue serving people in the present and the future,“ Warfel said.
The bishop said only 22 of the 86 victim's claims are covered by insurance. He added that all legal action in the case eats away at more assets, leaving less available for the survivors.
An official response from the church is due in court by Jan.18.