Judge delays trial against nuns, orders new settlement talks in church sex-abuse case



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HELENA, Montana — The Ursuline Sisters of the Western Province have found a lender willing to put up money to allow the order to begin settlement negotiations with hundreds of people who claim they were abused by priests and nuns in Montana, an attorney said Thursday.

The disclosure by Ursulines attorney Thomas Johnson comes less than three weeks before the first in a series of trials against the order was to get underway.

District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock pushed the July 14 trial date to Dec. 1 to allow the attorneys for the Ursulines and the plaintiffs in the two lawsuits to hold talks. If significant progress has not been made after 45 days, the judge may order the sides to meet with a mediator, he said in a court hearing Thursday.

The Ursulines and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena are defendants in the lawsuits filed by 362 people who say they were abused between the 1940s and 1970s.

The case against the diocese was put on hold after it filed for bankruptcy as part of a proposed $15 million settlement. The Ursulines are not a part of the settlement and the claims against them are going forward.

Many of the claims are centered on sexual abuse that happened in the St. Ignatius school run by the Ursulines, or in St. Ignatius parish. The plaintiffs claim the Ursulines placed sexual predators in rural and remote locations and should have known that they would use their clerical cover to groom and sexually exploit their victims. The order has denied the allegations.

Johnson previously said the Ursulines don't have insurance to cover the claims or enough assets to pay out dozens of jury awards, and they were considering filing for bankruptcy if the case went to trial.

But the lender recently surfaced who will put up money against the Ursulines property, Johnson said Thursday. Johnson would not identify the lender or reveal the amount offered.

The attorneys for the plaintiffs agreed to the talks. Vito de la Cruz, a plaintiffs' attorney in one of the lawsuits, said it may be the last best chance to avoid a trial.

De la Cruz previously said he was skeptical about a last-minute attempt at settlement talks, but the new developments changed the circumstances.

Molly Howard, a plaintiffs' attorney in the second lawsuit, said her clients are willing to see what the Ursulines will offer in a settlement, but they are against a more expensive mediation process.

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