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Catholic diocese in Helena, Mont., files for bankruptcy to resolve sex abuse lawsuits

Ron Zellar / AP file

This 2011 file photo shows the Cathedral of St. Helena in Helena, Mont. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena was filing for bankruptcy protection Friday in advance of proposed settlements for two lawsuits that claim clergy members sexually abused 362 people over decades and the church covered it up.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena, Mont., filed for bankruptcy protection on Friday to pave the way for a $15 million settlement of lawsuits alleging clergy members sexually abused 362 children over five decades, according to a diocese spokesman.

 “The settlement here will be as much help financially as we can offer to claimants,” the spokesman, Dan Bartleson, told NBCNews.com. “And the bankruptcy puts us in a place at the diocese where we can care for the Catholics who are currently part of the church.”

The lawsuits, originally filed in 2011, claimed that clergy members had abused children from the 1940s to 1980s and that the diocese knew or should have known what was happening.

“It’s widespread … (and) some of the most horrific abuse we’ve dealt with,” Dan Fasy, an attorney with law firm Kosnoff Fasy, which represents 268 of the 362 claimants, told NBC News.

Although the settlements are not official yet, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Montana would supervise the disbursement of $15 million if the Chapter 11 protection is approved, with an additional $2.5 million set aside for victims who have not yet come forward, Bartleson said.

All of the claimants lived within the diocese’s geographical boundaries, which span western and north central Montana.

In August 2012, the Rev. George Leo Thomas, bishop of Helena, wrote a letter published in a diocese bulletin asking those who may have suffered to come forward.

“As I have personally listened to survivors’ heart-wrenching stories, I have been saddened by their reports of shattered innocence, broken trust and the spiritual and psychological toll that abuse takes on innocent victims,” Thomas wrote. “Words cannot adequately express our sorrow or convey the depth of our apology.”

Fasy, the attorney representing most of the claimants, said the deal worked out with the diocese will help the sexual abuse survivors turn the page.

“We’re all working toward the common goal of getting healing and closure for the survivors we represent,” Fasy said. “Although we didn’t choose to file for bankruptcy protection, it may be an effective resolution to these claims.”

Although most of the settlement will be funded by insurance carriers, a press release from the Helena diocese said it will need to pay at least $2.5 million to fund claims and the costs associated with the lawsuits, which has led to a reduction of staff, services and the limitation of parish building projects.

The Ursuline Sisters of the Western Province, a Catholic order that has been involved in mediations, is not part of the settlement , Bartleson said.

Another case that has also been filed and is pending is against the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, which covers the eastern part of the state. A resolution from the bankruptcy filing would not impact that case.