CHURCH leaders in America's largest Roman Catholic archdiocese are to pay a record $660 million (£325 million) to compensate hundreds of children who were molested by paedophile priests.
The Los Angeles settlement is the largest since a national sex abuse scandal erupted in Boston five years ago, forcing some dioceses to close parishes and sell property to meet the claims and driving others into bankruptcy.
Each of the 508 claimants will receive about $1.3 million if a judge in Los Angeles this morning approves a deal that will also halt legal proceedings against 15 accused priests and spare senior church officials from taking the stand.
"Some of the victims have waited more than five decades for a chance at reconciliation and resolution," said Raymond Boucher, the victims' lead lawyer. "This is a down payment on a debt long overdue."
The case is among the most prominent of several around the US that have cost the Catholic church more than $2 billion (983 million) in compensation payments. The previous biggest pay-out to victims was $157 million by the Boston archdiocese in 2003.
A year later, a report commissioned by the church revealed more than 4,000 of its priests had faced sexual abuse allegations in the last 50 years and that there were more than 10,000 victims, mostly boys.
Much of the controversy centred on how the church knew of the abuse in many cases but covered it up, allowing priests to transfer to other parishes, where they could continue to prey on children.
The scandal elicited an apology from the late Pope John Paul II and prompted a Vatican investigation.
This is the second time that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has paid out this year after settling a claim by another 45 alleged abuse victims for $60 million in January.
Barbara Blaine, the founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said: "The amount of money involved points to the extent of the scale of the abuse.
"Credit for this settlement goes to the courageous victims who came forward and told of the horrors they experienced. Many predators would still be working in churches now if not for their bravery in speaking up.
"The bottom line is that the church is safer now, and kids are safer. "
Church officials in Los Angeles settled because they were keen to avoid even larger punitive damages at civil trials due to begin in the city today.
Michael Hennigan, the church's attorney, said the archdiocese would sell its administrative building and contribute $250 million, the rest coming from insurers, but had no plans to close churches, as happened in Boston and the diocese of Portland, Oregon, which filed for bankruptcy in 2003 after a $129 million payout.
The Los Angeles archdiocese is estimated to own at least 1,600 properties valued at more than $4 billion.
"The mission of the church will be impacted but not crippled," Mr Hennigan said.
Steve Sanchez, who was abused by a Los Angeles priest when he was a boy, said: "Hundreds of hurting men and women desperately need intense therapy, addiction counselling, drug rehab, in-patient treatment and medical help."