|The Cathedral of Saint Helena is one of my favorite places in town. The stained glass is awesome.
The Diocese of Helena is my home diocese. It's a small diocese in which someone always knows someone who knows the bishop personally. I can say I graduated from the same college Bishop Thomas did and I played softball with his sister---which in the normal way around here makes me highly connected. Although she was a very good first basemen, the truth is, while I met others in her family, I never met Bishop George Thomas and don't know him at all. This is in spite of the fact he was a senior when his sister and I were sophomores. I do however, know the chancellor of the diocese from back in those same college years. He probably wishes I didn't remember him quite so well. In any event, I give this information as a sort of disclosure. I may not be the most objective reporter on this bankruptcy--but on the other hand, I am also very familiar with the abuses that went on in the Native American boarding schools. I have met quite a number of those victims while participating in Native ceremonies across the State---and also as clients in therapeutic settings.
This LA Times article gives a pretty good overview of the numbers. The Helena situation is not exactly the typical case of a diocese avoiding transparency or payouts by declaring bankruptcy--like Listecki in Milwaukee. In the Helena case most of the names came out in the settlement with the Northwest Jesuit Province, and the respective victims attorneys have listed others. It's also not exactly about reams of diocesan priests being hidden and transferred from one parish to another. In this particular settlement about 12% or just under 40 of the 362 victims, accused diocesan priests; a little over 20% accused one or another Ursuline nun, and the rest were victims of the Jesuits who ran the Native mission schools and parishes.
Under Montana law, those victims who were compensated in the 166 million dollar Jesuit settlement, which included about 2/3rds of the plaintiffs in the Helena settlement, will receive money from the Helena settlement if their individual amount exceeds what they received in the Jesuit settlement.This helps explain why the mediated settlement was 15 million rather than a higher sum. However, the operative word in that last sentence is 'mediated'. This was not a confrontational process from the beginning. The National Catholic Reporter ran a story about this mediation process. It is worth reading.
The hang up in the mediation was not on the part of the Diocese or Bishop Thomas. It was on the part of the Ursulines who eventually opted out of the mediated settlement, and various insurance companies who kept going to court to lessen their liability. The Ursuline court case will be one of the very few that have involved religious orders of nuns in the US. That in itself is interesting in that the Ursulines were far from the only order that ran boarding schools or orphanages. The Ursulines may have felt that they were better off distancing themselves from the Helena Diocese settlement because they wanted to play the nun sympathy card and would rather take their chances with a jury. Good luck, I'm sure the media spotlight will be very bright once their case comes to trial this summer. I also have to admit I am glad they chose to go to trial because for once, Americans may actually get a glimpse of the day to day life in the Native American boarding schools. For those whites of Anglo or European descent who grew up in fear of ruler wielding nuns, the truth of the Boarding Schools should give them some perspective. Where as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have issued government apologies for the misery their boarding schools inflicted on their Indigenous populations, the US has not uttered a peep. If the Ursuline trial sheds some light on this very dark corner of US policy, some good may actually come from a truly horrible situation.
The Diocese of Helena is a very small potato in the Church garden. Demographically Catholics are about 45,000 people in a Diocese covering half the State of Montana. If Montana follows the national trend, only about 1/3 of those 45,000 are practicing Catholics. Given those numbers and the lack of real capital assets, I am not surprised the Diocese wound up in bankruptcy. Scuttlebutt says the Diocese was heading towards bankruptcy before the law suits were filed, and that's scuttlebutt I can believe. One need only drive through Butte, which was the heart of Catholicism in this area, and count the closed parishes. It's a micro picture of the macro Church in the Anglo and European worlds. It may not be exactly what Pope Francis means by his 'poor church for the poor' concept, but it is a poor and shrinking church.
In closing, I believe Bishop Thomas is genuine about his apologies and his desire to see as much justice as can be done for victims. I don't know anyone who hasn't been devastated when meeting victims face to face and really hearing what their lives were like in the Mission schools. The guilt and shame become personal if only because one is a white Christian. No one deserved the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse these kids went through and I truly believe Bishop Thomas cares. Another bishop might have fought tooth and nail since most of the plaintiffs listed religious order abusers as opposed to diocesan priests, but the truth is, it was the system and the culture itself that carries the blame and Bishop Thomas is one of the few bishop who acts as if he gets it.