GREAT FALLS, Montana — A U.S. judge has granted a request for lawsuits to proceed in Montana state court that were filed by two people who claim they were sexually abused as children by a Catholic priest in the small southern town of Absarokee in the 1970s and 1980s.
Monday’s order by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Jim Papas said the parties were not making progress in settlement negotiations, the Great Falls Tribune reported.
“Time to do something else,” he wrote.
The Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, which covers the eastern half of Montana, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March 2017 while working to settle 86 claims of abuse from the 1940s to the 1980s.
Attorneys for the two victims whose cases are moving forward argued deciding their claims in state court could help determine damage amounts due to the other 84 plaintiffs.
The claims involve a woman who said Father Joseph Heretick abused her from 1983 to 1986 and a man who said he was abused by Heretick and another priest from 1974 to 1980. Heretick died in 1999.
Attorneys for the diocese argued that allowing the lawsuits to proceed would force the church to spend money on its defense and wait for their conclusion, reducing the amount of money that could be used for the settlement.
Papas said settlement talks on the other 84 cases can continue while the court cases proceed.
“Based upon the despicable acts that are the basis of these claims, everyone has an interest to get into a resolution in some fashion in these claims,” Papas said.
“Society members of the church and the citizens of Montana also have an interest in seeing that these abuse claims are resolved in some appropriate fashion,” he said.
Last month, the attorneys representing a victims group argued parish money being held by the diocese should be available to pay a settlement to victims.
The victims’ group argued in December that $70 million in real estate and another $16 million in parish money should be on the table.
Crux staff contributed to this report.