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 chrials 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.