updated 1/26/2007 2:26:59 PM ET 2007-01-26T19:26:59

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston announced Friday it will settle child sex abuse claims in South Carolina, designating as much as $12 million for damages.

The class-action settlement between the diocese and victims has been given initial approval by a judge, said Larry Richter, an attorney representing four people claiming abuse.

It is not clear how many victims there are. In 2004, South Carolina diocese officials said there had been 45 credible abuse allegations in the state between 1950 and 2002 against 21 priests, one deacon and one deacon candidate.

Recent negotiations revealed allegations against at least 26 priests, Richter said.

"What you find in this area is people can't just be molested and the next day step up to the plate and say 'I'm a victim,'" said Richter, himself a Roman Catholic. "It's often after a very painful time in life."

Bishop: ‘I deeply regret the anguish’
Bishop Robert Baker scheduled a news conference Friday afternoon to discuss the settlement.

"I deeply regret the anguish of any individual who has suffered the scourge of childhood abuse and I am firmly committed to a just resolution of any instance in which a person who holds the responsibility of a protector has become a predator," Baker said in a letter published in the diocesan newspaper on Friday.

The settlement allows compensation for sexual abuse victims born before August 30, 1980, and their spouses and parents.

Richter said the 1980 date was negotiated between the attorneys and the diocese, generally to assure the settlement would cover victims who otherwise could not sue under the statute of limitations in South Carolina.

The agreement sets up an initial pool of $5 million. If $4 million of that is paid, a second pool of $7 million will be added.

Richter said they arrived at the $12 million figure by reviewing settlements throughout the country.

An arbitrator will validate claims and determine the amount of compensation, according to the statement.

The diocese said it was encouraging anyone who may have been a victim to contact an attorney.

Diocese officials in South Carolina have said the incidence of child abuse was lower than the national average during the past half century.

The state statistics were released in 2004 as the national Roman Catholic church released a similar report — the first church-sanctioned tally of abuse cases.

More than 10,000 claims nationwide
The national report found there had been 10,667 abuse claims nationwide between 1950 and 2002. About 4 percent of all American clerics who served nationally during the period were accused of abuse compared with 2.7 percent of the clergy in South Carolina.

The state diocese said then it had paid $2.6 million over the years to settle sexual abuse allegations, $642,000 of that paid by insurance companies. Another $646,000 has been paid for counseling and legal fees related to sexual abuse allegations.

A former priest who pleaded guilty last year to assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature in the sexual abuse of two boys 30 years ago was the seventh former priest, coach or teacher in the diocese to plead guilty to abuse charges.

There are about 158,000 Catholics in South Carolina, almost 4 percent of the state population, according to the diocesan Web site.

A final hearing on the settlement will be held in early March.

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