The Catholic Diocese of Helena, Mont., will file for bankruptcy reorganization Friday as part of its effort to resolve two lawsuits that claim clergy members and other church workers sexually abused 362 people over several decades and the church covered it up.

Madison Bishop Robert Morlino served as bishop of the Helena diocese from 1999-2003. The lawsuits were filed in 2011 and relate to allegations of abuse from the 1940s to the 1970s, according to the Associated Press.

The allegations pre-date Morlino's tenure in Helena, and he has not been brought into any conversations related to the lawsuits, said Brent King, spokesman for the Madison Catholic Diocese.

A statement released Friday by the Helena diocese said the details of the settlements are still being worked out but that $15 million would be available to compensate the currently identified victims, with additional settlement funds for other and unknown victims.

Morlino was bishop of Helena in 2002 when the national priest-abuse crisis broke. In a 2002 story in the (Helena) Independent Record, Morlino referenced allegations of abuse that pre-dated his arrival there.

“I understand from the reports of others that historically, there were some pretty high-profile cases of sexual misconduct by priests in this diocese,” Morlino told the Helena paper at the time.

“Whenever this happened — if it happened 30 years ago or if it happened yesterday — it’s one too many times," Morlino went on. "It’s a terrible betrayal on our trust. In the last two and one-half years, there has been no credible allegations of any credible sexual misconduct that have been reported to me.”

King said Morlino acted quickly to put into place in Helena policies and procedures to prevent priest abuse and to deal with allegations of abuse. Morlino brought in Kevin Phelan as Helena chancellor -- basically a diocese's chief of staff -- to spearhead those efforts, including setting up a board to review claims of sexual abuse. Morlino, who came to Madison in 2003, brought Phelan here the following year to oversee the same work here.

Phelan released this statement Friday: "Bishop Morlino made his approach for dealing with abuse clear: That anyone bringing forth an allegation of abuse (substantiated or not) will be dealt with as a person in need of the church’s help, whether it be physically, spiritually, or psychologically, and not as a litigious, or monetary liability. He made this clear and his Safe Environment Offices, in Helena and now here in Madison, have operated with this as their primary principle."

You can reach reporter Doug Erickson at derickson@madison.com or 608-252-6149.

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