The Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego said in a letter to parishioners this weekend that it is considering declaring bankruptcy to avoid going to trial on more than 140 lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by priests.

The pastoral statement, signed by Bishop Robert Brom, said if fair settlements cannot be reached with abuse victims, "the diocese may be forced to file a Chapter 11 reorganization in bankruptcy court." Chapter 11 refers to a section of the U.S. bankruptcy code.

The California diocese is concerned "that settlements not cripple the ability of the Church to accomplish its mission and ministries," the letter said.

The letter was included in the regular weekly bulletin handed out at services Saturday and Sunday.

If the diocese files for bankruptcy, it would become the fifth in the United States to seek protection in the clergy sex abuse scandal. Under such bankruptcy, a court supervises the reorganization of the diocese's contractual and debt obligations.

An attorney for the San Diego plaintiffs said the bankruptcy filing "would be a sham and frivolous."

"We don't know if the threat of bankruptcy is a ploy to try and get the plaintiffs to settle for less money or if it's a stonewalling tactic," attorney Andrea Leavitt said. "What the public needs to know is this is a very rich diocese with over 500 pieces of property and a lot of insurance."

Brom was expected to further address the issue at a pre-Lent meeting Monday of nearly 300 priests in the diocese. The diocese includes about a million Catholics in San Diego and Imperial counties.

There are 154 plaintiffs in San Diego County alleging priest abuse, Leavitt said. Brom, in his letter, wrote that 143 people had filed lawsuits against the diocese.

The first case is set for trial in Superior Court on Feb. 28. Three other trials are scheduled to follow, involving multiple victims and allegations that the diocese protected abusive priests by moving them from parish to parish.

A message left at the San Diego Diocese was not immediately returned Sunday night.

Other dioceses filing for bankruptcy are Portland, Oregon; Spokane, Washington; Davenport, Iowa; and Tucson, Arizona.