The Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena filed for bankruptcy protection on Friday, January 31, amid hundreds of claims by clergy members of sexual abuse over five decades.

Director of Communications Dan Bartleson said the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing was part of an ongoing mediation process.

"We have entered into a process of mediation with victims who have made claims against personnel of the diocese," Bartleson said. "There are about 362 claims and the period of time is between 30 and 60 years ago."

Bartleson said the total payout will eventually top $30 million to victims of abuse over the years.

"What it looks like at this point with approval of the court, there will be a $15 million payout, and there will also be an amount set aside for future or unknown victims. Those decisions are part of the overall resolution process decided on by both parties. The $15 million will primarily come from insurance carriers from that time period, however, the diocese itself will have to provide about $2.5 million to fund claims, costs of court proceedings, and also for future cases."

Bartleson said the church and the local diocese have instituted a 'zero-tolerance' policy for any kind of abuse, or even the appearance of abuse by clergy.

"If any sort of an accusation is made, or if it even looks like there may be any abuse or grooming of any child by a member of the clergy, those people are immediately removed from any contact with children, and any kind of ministry," Bartleson said. "Initially, they're suspended, and depending on the nature of the incident, law enforcement may become involved, and there would be discussion of whether or not that person even belonged in the church."

Bartleson said the church must earn back the trust of the people through their transparency.

"If there's going to be trust, it needs to be earned," Bartleson said. "I hope people will pay attention to what we're doing over time to handle these things in the way they need to be handled, and the way they should have been handled in the past."

Bartleson said the $2.5 million of the settlement paid for by the diocese has meant staff reductions and a loss of services for the local congregations.

"Our contribution of $2.5 million represents more than two years of our overall operating costs," Bartleson said. "Personnel have been let go, building projects have been suspended, and other programs the diocese conducts for the needs of the parish have taken a hit."

Two lawsuits filed in 2011 claimed that the members of the clergy abused hundreds of children from the 1930's through the 1970's, and that the diocese protected the offenders, even though they should have known the threat they posed to the congregation.

Diocese of Helena Communications Director Dan Bartleson