A small Roman Catholic diocese in California is suing the Archdiocese of Boston, alleging that Cardinal Bernard M. Law and his deputies gave a priest a favorable recommendation and helped him transfer to the West Coast even though he had a long history of child sexual abuse complaints.

Church officials said they believe the suit is the first time that a diocese has gone to court to say it was hoodwinked by another diocese into accepting an accused child molester.

Under the pressure of multimillion-dollar settlements, "it seems the gloves are finally coming off," said A.W. Richard Sipe, a former priest who has testified against the church in numerous lawsuits by victims of sexual abuse. "It's a major shift, a whole new form of self-defense in which the niceties of a gentleman's agreement between dioceses has been dropped."

The Diocese of San Bernardino contends in the suit, filed Tuesday in San Bernardino Superior Court, that the Boston Archdiocese should pay for all settlements, judgments and legal expenses resulting from abuse allegedly committed in California by the Rev. Paul Shanley.

A key piece of evidence is a Jan. 16, 1990, letter to the San Bernardino Diocese from Bishop Robert J. Banks, then the vicar for administration in Boston. He wrote that Shanley was "a priest in good standing" who had been granted a one-year medical leave and wanted to live in Palm Springs, Calif.

Shanley "would be willing to provide a minimum of ministry such as a celebration of Mass in lieu of room and board," the letter said. "His Eminence, Cardinal Law, will appreciate whatever assistance can be given to Father Shanley."

On the basis of that letter, a spokesman for the San Bernardino Diocese said yesterday, Shanley was given a part-time position in a Southern California parish. "We would never have accepted him if we had been told that he was accused of child sexual abuse," the spokesman, the Rev. Howard Lincoln, said.

Donna Morrissey, a spokeswoman for the Boston Archdiocese, said it could not comment on the suit because its lawyers have not reviewed it.

Lincoln maintained that relations between the two dioceses have remained "cordial and professional," noting that San Bernardino is asking Boston to cover only its legal liabilities, not to pay damages.

"We contacted Boston prior to doing this, and based on our conversations, we believe that the filing of this cross-complaint was the most responsible course of action," he said. "This is about determining responsibility; it's certainly not about vindictiveness."

Shanley, 71, has been a central figure in the sex abuse scandal that has racked the church over the past year. According to numerous lawsuits, the Archdiocese of Boston allowed him to minister to troubled youth in the 1970s and promoted him to pastor in 1985 while covering up mounting allegations of abuse. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of abusing four boys in Newton, Mass., from 1979 to 1989, and is on bail awaiting trial.

Shanley is also a defendant in a civil lawsuit by Kevin English, who alleges that he was abused in California by the Boston priest beginning at 17. Shanley, he says, often took him to a gay resort that the priest owned in Palm Springs and encouraged him to have sex with multiple partners in a hot tub.

English's lawsuit is one of about 50 filed under a law passed in California last year that opened a one-year window, beginning Jan. 1, for civil lawsuits involving sexual abuse no matter how long ago it occurred. Lawyers have notified the Los Angeles Archdiocese of about 250 suits they intend to file once a court panel decides how to coordinate the deluge of cases.

Lincoln said English's lawsuit could have a devastating financial impact on the San Bernardino Diocese, which has 1.1 million parishioners and about $1 million in reserves. "We're a relatively poor diocese but a responsible one," he said.

But some abuse survivors and their lawyers questioned San Bernardino's claim to victim's status. Mary Grant, head of the Southern California chapter of the Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests, said there was "a clear red flag" in the letter from Boston saying Shanley was on medical leave. "It's been shown all across the country that this was going on," she said. "By 1990, they should have known better than to accept someone with no questions asked."

Raymond Boucher, a Los Angeles lawyer representing dozens of alleged victims of predatory priests, said the San Bernardino Diocese is "the mirror image of Boston in terms of aiding and abetting perpetrators, about as ugly as it gets in California." Although it is "the height of hypocrisy" for San Bernardino to sue Boston, he added, "it's nice to see the devil eating the damned."