HELENA — Ten people filed a lawsuit Wednesday claiming they were sexually abused as children by Roman Catholic priests and nuns in central and eastern Montana, including a priest who was on a board that reviews allegations of child sex abuse for the church.
It is the third sex-abuse lawsuit filed against the Catholic church in Montana since last year and the first against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Great Falls-Billings.
The lawyers who filed the lawsuit in Cascade County District Court also represent about 160 other alleged victims in one of the two claims against the Catholic Diocese of Helena, which covers the western part of the state.
The 10 unnamed plaintiffs are now adults and say the abuse took place from the 1960s to the 1980s at schools, missions, churches and homes in St. Xavier, Livingston, Absarokee, Great Falls, Hays, Wolf Point and Hardin.
Diocesan officials should have known about the abuse but gave the priests and nuns unfettered access to the children, the lawsuit alleges. Instead of removing those clergy members once victims began coming forward, the diocese intimidated the victims into keeping their silence, said Tim Kosnoff, a Seattle attorney representing the plaintiffs
"They continue to pay lip service to protecting children, all the while covering up accusations of sexual abuse," Kosnoff said in a news conference in Great Falls Wednesday.
Rev. Jay Peterson, the diocese's vicar general, released a statement Wednesday that said the diocese has a zero-tolerance sex abuse policy and that some of the allegations involve Jesuit clergy that were assigned to the diocese years ago.
Peterson compared this lawsuit to the one against the Helena diocese, in which the plaintiffs' attorneys "make sweeping allegations and then try these claims in a court of public opinion in hopes of generating new potential claimants."
One of the priests accused in the lawsuit, Rev. Ted Szudera, was one of seven members of the diocese's independent review board that advises the bishop in his assessment of allegations of sexual abuse of minors.
One plaintiff, identified by his initials T.B., alleges that Szudera abused him as a teenage altar boy in 1978 and 1979 when Szudera was a priest in Livingston.
A biography by the diocese says Szudera was ordained in 1977 and is the pastor of St. Mark's Church in Belt and of missions in Monarch, Raynesford and Centerville.
Peterson said a sex-abuse claim made against Szudera six years ago was investigated and found to be not credible.
Szudera recently resigned from the review board and has taken a leave of absence from parish ministry. Peterson said he did not know when Szudera resigned from the board nor did he know why.
"He was long overdue for a sabbatical and I think this was a way for the bishop to provide him with a sabbatical," Peterson said.
A person who answered a phone in Belt listed in Szudera's name said Szudera had not lived there in six months.
Four other priests were named in the lawsuit, but Kosnoff said he did not know how many are still alive.
Kosnoff and his team of attorneys represented many of the Native Americans and Alaska Natives who brought sex-abuse claims against the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus. The province last year agreed to pay $166 million to drop the lawsuit alleging sex abuse in Catholic-run schools across the Northwest and Alaska
Kosnoff said that case caused many alleged victims in Montana to come forward. The Helena case started with a few dozen plaintiffs and has now grown to more than 160, and he expects more plaintiffs to be added to this new lawsuit, as well.
"I think we're only just beginning to see the start of those claims coming forward," he said.
A separate lawsuit filed by 45 American Indians against the Helena diocese last year claims that priests and nuns abused them at Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Missoula.