The filing said the diocese “faces potentially significant exposure from remaining claimants,” which is estimated to be at least 200 more than the 111 cases it has already settled.
The bankruptcy filing also claimed it has liabilities between $50 million and $100 million, with assets of less than $10 million.
“We have no other path forward to ensure the future of our diocese than reorganization bankruptcy,” Bishop Ronald Gainer said.
Bankruptcy could shield the diocese from more claims, lawyer Ben Andreozzi said.
“From the day they file bankruptcy, moving on into the future if someone did not present their claim in that time frame, it is forever exhausted,” he said.
Andreozzi has settled about 20 claims against the diocese.
The Harrisburg diocese opened a temporary settlement program after a landmark grand jury report accused it and five other dioceses in Pennsylvania of covering up the sexual abuse of hundreds of children over much of the past century.
A proposed amendment in the state legislature that would allow adult victims now too old to sue the diocese for covering up their sexual abuse would have to be passed by lawmakers in the 2021-22 legislative session before needing approval by voters in a statewide referendum.
Attorney Jeff Anderson, who represents dozens of church abuse victims, said a bankruptcy filing could be used to cover up the diocese’s assets in determining their liability to victims or avoid divulging documents on how they handled past abuse claims.
So far, 22 dioceses and religious orders in the United States have filed for bankruptcy.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.