PORTLAND, Ore. — The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland is handing over property deeds to its parishes in a move to make them legally independent, part of a bankruptcy settlement the archdiocese reached last year with victims of sex abuse by priests.

Each parish will be reorganized into a nonprofit "member corporation" with a five-person board of directors.

The archdiocese argued in federal bankruptcy court that church real estate belonged to the parishes, not the archdiocese. The reorganization will spell that out legally.

The victims argued the real estate could be sold to meet settlement claims against the archdiocese.

Archbishop John Vlazny outlined the plan in a letter to parishioners recently distributed in churches.

"Most parishioners will not notice any difference in the life of the parish as a result of the restructuring," he wrote.

Parishes will receive the legal titles of their real property, including churches, schools and meeting halls, by the end of the month.

Critics, however, claim the new structure is meant to shield the property from future lawsuits.

"Once again, the church attempts to deceive the rank and file into believing they have some control," said Bill Crane, director of Oregon Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "At the end of the day, when all is said and done, it's the bishops and the hierarchy who do."

The restructuring plan is the work of an advisory group that included representatives from the archdiocese, parishes and attorneys.

In 2004, the Portland archdiocese became the first U.S. Catholic diocese to declare bankruptcy; four other dioceses later followed suit. Portland emerged from bankruptcy with a $75 million settlement last year.