SAN DIEGO (AP) _ The Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego filed for bankruptcy protection late Tuesday to put off going to trial in more than 140 civil lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by priests.
The petition was lodged with the federal bankruptcy court in San Diego at 11:55 p.m., just hours before the first trial was scheduled to go forward in a San Diego courtroom. A Chapter 11 filing automatically halts court proceedings.
San Diego is the fifth U.S. diocese to file for bankruptcy protection under the shadow of sex abuse claims. With nearly 1 million parishioners, it is also the largest.
In a letter posted on the diocese's Web site earlier in the day, Bishop Robert Brom wrote that the diocese had ``decided against litigating our cases because of the length of time the process could take and, more importantly, because early trial judgments in favor of some victims could so deplete diocesan and insurance resources that there would be nothing left for other victims.''
Brom said in his letter that the diocese would disclose the names of accused priests who officials are certain participated in abuse, and ``we will verify that no known abuser is functioning in ministry.''
Diocese officials and plaintiffs' attorneys failed to reach a settlement during two days of negotiations, wrapped up Monday, in Los Angeles Superior Court.
The diocese called plaintiffs' attorneys Tuesday morning to make a ``final and best'' settlement offer, said Micheal Webb, attorney for the diocese. He declined to specify how much the church had offered but said it was higher than total settlements reached in other U.S. dioceses.
``When they rejected it, we were left with no choice,'' Webb said.
The lead plaintiffs' attorney, Ray Boucher, disputed Webb's characterization of the offer and described it as an ``ultimatum.''
He said Webb had not provided sufficient financial information to allow plaintiffs' attorneys to determine whether the offer was reasonable. Boucher claimed the diocese was planning to file for bankruptcy protection even if the offer were accepted.
``If it was really a settlement to help the diocese avoid bankruptcy that would be one thing but that's not what this was,'' Boucher said. ``From the diocese standpoint it was a pure business decision.''
Other attorneys for the plaintiffs said the total amount the church had offered was insufficient because San Diego has more plaintiffs than other jurisdictions.
``It's meaningless,'' said attorney Andrea Leavitt.
They also accused the church of using bankruptcy as a way to keep potentially embarrassing information under wraps. By delaying civil trials, the filing prevents diocese officials from being confronted in court with potentially embarrassing facts, missteps or documents related to past handling of abusive priests.
A trial prompted by a woman's accusations that a priest forced her to have sex in his parish office 1972, when she was 17, was scheduled to begin Wednesday. Three other trials were scheduled to follow, involving multiple victims and allegations that the diocese protected abusive priests by moving them from parish to parish.
Plaintiffs with cases already released for trial may appeal for permission to let those trials move ahead.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, told reporters outside St. Joseph's Cathedral in downtown San Diego that he and his local staff had been fielding calls throughout the day from victims, some in tears, asking about the bankruptcy.
``In all of these dioceses, the bishops claim that it's for the victims, but it's not. It's for their own self-preservation,'' said Clohessy.
Diocese officials announced this month in a letter distributed to parishioners that they were contemplating bankruptcy to put off going to trial. The diocese retained an Arizona bankruptcy attorney who guided the Tucson diocese through its filing, and Brom discussed the matter with diocese priests at a regular pre-Lent meeting Feb. 19 in San Diego.
The diocese, which covers San Diego and Imperial counties, has 98 churches and runs 50 schools.
In addition to Tucson and San Diego, the dioceses that have filed for bankruptcy were Portland, Ore., Spokane, Wash., and Davenport, Iowa. Tucson has emerged from bankruptcy, while proposed settlements in Spokane and Portland are awaiting final approval. Portland had been the largest diocese to file for bankruptcy, with nearly 400,000 Catholics, according to its Web site.
The Iowa diocese filed for bankruptcy just days before the civil trial of a retired bishop from a neighboring diocese was set to begin. Fifteen plaintiffs had come forward alleging abuse.