COVINGTON, Ky. - Marking the largest settlement yet in the Roman Catholic Church's sexual abuse crisis, the Covington Diocese said yesterday that it had agreed to pay up to $120 million to alleged victims of child molestation.

The amount, which must be approved by the Boone County Circuit Court, would eclipse a $100 million settlement reached by the Orange County, Calif., diocese last year involving 90 victims, and an $85 million settlement reached two years ago with 552 victims by the Boston Archdiocese, where the scandal erupted in 2002.

The announcement came after more than a year of negotiations after the filing of a class-action suit against the Covington Diocese in February 2003 on behalf of more than 100 alleged victims. The suit said the diocese had covered up the abuse over a 50-year period.

"After personally meeting with more than 70 victims, I am painfully aware that no amount of money can compensate for the harm these victims suffered as innocent children," the Most Rev. Roger Foys, bishop of the diocese, said in a statement yesterday. Foys, who became bishop in July 2002, apologized to those who reported abuse and "were not treated with respect and courtesy when they came forth."

Under terms of the settlement, victims would be placed into one of four categories, depending upon the severity of their abuse. Payments would range from $5,000 to $450,000 for each victim, minus attorneys' fees.

The diocese agreed that any person who claimed to have been sexually abused by a member of the clergy or a lay employee could seek compensation no matter how long ago alleged abuse occurred.

The diocese said it would put up church real estate, including its retreat center, and other investments to raise $40 million. The remaining $80 million, the diocese said, would be paid by its insurance carriers. The diocese said it would sue its insurance carriers, if necessary, to get them to pay. Any funds not needed to pay out claims would be returned to the diocese.

Attorney Stanley M. Chesley, the lead counsel for the plaintiffs, called the settlement "an unprecedented result in an extremely difficult matter."

In Lexington, Ky., one alleged victim who was not part of the suit said that said no amount of money could blot out her memories of being sexually abused by a priest in the Covington Diocese, beginning when she was 13.

"The folks who are settling in the class-action lawsuit will feel the same thing I felt. Once the money's in the bank account and the dust settles, you realize it doesn't really matter. Everything's still the same. Nothing has changed," Kay Montgomery, 52, said. She received an undisclosed amount in an earlier settlement.

"At first there are feelings of everything - vindication, grief, hope - but over time you realize that the church is not making any true cultural changes. All they're doing, it seems, is writing big checks to settle their problems and have people stop talking about what's really going on," Montgomery said.

Unlike in the agreements in Orange County and Boston, the Kentucky case apparently does not require the Diocese of Covington to publicly disclose any internal church documents that could shed light on the extent of any abuse or how the diocese handled accusations against its priests.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said yesterday that the size of the Kentucky settlement indicated decades of wrongdoing. "More than anything, it tells me there's horrific evidence of widespread abuse and cover-up," Clohessy said.

Foys said he would do everything possible "to assure that this reprehensible behavior by priests will never again be repeated in our diocese."

The scandal exploded in early 2002 in Boston and quickly spread across the country. A study commissioned by the nation's bishops reported in 2004 that at least 4,392 priests had been accused by 10,667 people of sexual abuse between 1950 and 2002.

At least three dioceses - Tucson, Ariz., Portland, Ore., and Spokane, Wash. - have declared bankruptcy because of the scandal, and a number of bishops have resigned.

The $120 million is in addition to $4.86 million that the Covington Diocese paid out from 1989 through February 2004 in settlements, legal fees and counseling for victims. An additional $9.4 million was paid by insurance companies between 1993 and February 2004, diocesan communications director Timothy Fitzgerald said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.