The Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson filed for bankruptcy protection Monday under the weight of debt and pending litigation from clerical sex abuse cases.

The diocese is the second in the nation to seek the protection of bankruptcy court in the wake of extensive and continuing legal action stemming from sexual abuse of children by parish priests; the archdiocese of Portland, Ore., filed July 6.

The decision will subject the Tucson Diocese's financial operations to court scrutiny for the first time, and potentially open the way for non-church interference.

In 2002, the Tucson Diocese settled 11 lawsuits filed by 16 plaintiffs, including 10 victims who claimed abuse by four of its priests. Most of the abuse was alleged to have occurred from the 1960s through the 1990s. The settlement amount wasn't disclosed.

By the latest count, 22 more lawsuits with 34 plaintiffs have been brought against the diocese, all involving abuse allegations.

According to its financial statement, the diocese had $4.65 million in long-term debt and a $7 million deficit in unrestricted net assets as of June 30.

Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas said in a letter Monday to parishioners that the filing of a voluntary petition for a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization represents "the best opportunity for healing and for the just and fair compensation of those who suffered sexual abuse by workers for the church in our diocese."

Attorneys for plaintiffs suing the diocese believe it has enough money to settle the cases now pending.