Catholic parishioners all over Eastern Montana are expected to find a letter from Bishop Michael Warfel in their Mass bulletins this Sunday, harshly criticizing a recent editorial in the Billings Gazette.
The letter, dated Aug. 17 and signed by Warfel, bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, takes the Gazette to task for what Warfel calls “an incredibly erroneous opinion piece” that ran last Sunday.
The unsigned editorial said the diocese paid the Northern Cheyenne Tribe $11 million to settle claims against the church, but Warfel said the settlement was negotiated between the St. Labre Indian School in Ashland and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.
“It is true that St. Labre is a Catholic School,” Warfel’s letter says. “It is not, however, a part of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings. … The diocese has NOT paid the tribe a single dollar in this settlement.”
No one could be reached at the diocese office, which closes at noon on Fridays. Pat Bellinghausen, editorial page editor of the Gazette, referred all questions to Gazette Editor Darrel Ehrlick, who wrote the editorial, according to Bellinghausen. Ehrlick did not return a phone call from Last Best News.
The Gazette has already acknowledged that the editorial contained some errors. It printed a boxed clarification on top of its opinion page Friday, saying that diocesan officials “have since said the diocese did not pay out any cash settlement.”
It goes on to say, though, that the diocese “was named as one of the defendants in the lawsuit which reached settlement last year. Documents show the diocese may have had to relinquish property in the lawsuit, but officials and lawyers would not comment on the specifics of settlement because of a mutual gag order that was negotiated as part of the settlement.”
In the original editorial, the Gazette said “the church demanded that the tribe not disclose terms of the settlement” and “chose to litigate the lawsuit behind closed doors.”
Warfel said in his letter that the lawsuit “was carried on in the same fashion as any other civil lawsuit,” and that all of the diocese’s filings “were available to any curious member of the public, including the staff of the Billings Gazette.”
Warfel also took issue with the notion that the church “was somehow in total control of the lawsuit and of the negotiations.” He said both parties to the lawsuit had an equal say in negotiations and in agreements on whether or not terms of the settlement would be disclosed. “In that respect,” Warfel said, “my attorneys tell me that such provisions are virtually standard in civil litigation.”
The “self-righteous tone of the editorial is bad enough,” Warfel wrote, but the misrepresentations and errors demonstrated “shoddy research as well as anti-Catholic bias which is becoming all too common in the media.”
When St. Labre and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe reached a settlement earlier this year, the Gazette reported that the legal battle centered on “allegations that the Catholic mission school reaped millions in fundraising dollars by exploiting the tribe.”
The lawsuit was filed in 2005 and accused the church and the diocese of “unjust enrichment” for failing to share fundraising proceeds with the tribe, even though the money had been raised by marketing the poverty of the tribe. The suit also alleged, again according to the original Gazette article, that “the school and church committed fraud, breach of contract and cultural genocide.”
Warfel defends St. Labre in his letter to parishioners, saying it does “remarkable service” to both the Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes, “especially for Indian schoolchildren.”
To read Warfel’s letter, click here.