AMERICA'S most senior Roman Catholic cleric obtained permission from the Vatican to move $57m (€43.9m) of church funds into a trust to shield it from sexual abuse victims seeking compensation.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, told Vatican officials in a 2007 letter that the transfer offered "improved protection of these funds from any legal claim".
Cardinal Dolan, who is now the Archbishop of New York, has been credited with helping to root out a serious sexual abuse scandal in his previous archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
However, he has long insisted that he never deliberately sought to protect church funds from victims of abuse by clergy in the archdiocese, which he led as archbishop between 2002 and 2009.
Yet on June 4, 2007, he proposed moving the assets to "an autonomous pious foundation", which he had established a month earlier, intended to fund the upkeep of cemeteries in the archdiocese.
The letter was published among more than 6,000 pages of documents released as part of a settlement between the archdiocese and lawyers for 570 people with lawsuits pending against it.
Cardinal Dolan's request was approved by the Vatican five weeks after his letter, according to the files. The church was already facing hundreds of lawsuits over alleged child molestation at the time.
The released files include extensive extracts from the personnel files of 42 members of the Milwaukee clergy against whom there were "substantiated" allegations of sexual abuse going back some 80 years.
Lawyers for the alleged victims accused Cardinal Dolan of helping the archdiocese to carry out fraud by filing for bankruptcy after moving the money to the separate cemetery fund.
"These documents show that if they want to move money to protect it from survivors they can act quick as a fox," said Jeff Anderson, one of the lawyers. "If they have full knowledge of kids in peril, they keep it secret while the Vatican drags its feet."
A spokesman for Cardinal Dolan described the disclosures as "old and discredited attacks".
The spokesman said that the documents showed bishops had kept promises such as "permanent removal from ministry of any priest who abused a minor and complete co-operation with law enforcement officials".
However, the letter threatened to challenge the reputation of the cardinal, who earned plaudits within the church for his steady handling of the Milwaukee scandal.
Cardinal Dolan has also become renowned as an effective critic of President Barack Obama's overhaul of American health insurance, which requires employers to pay for plans including women's contraception.
Supporters pointed to other documents in the released files that showed that in 2003, the then-archbishop pleaded with the Vatican to defrock a priest who had been accused of repeatedly abusing children.
"The impact on his victims has been significant," he wrote. "The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has yet to even locate all of the potential victims that could come forward for assistance. Our new found awareness of the severity of damage caused by sexual abuse at the hands of clergy makes it impossible for us to ignore this situation."
Despite his pressure, the Vatican office overseeing sex abuse allegations, which was then led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who went on to be Pope Benedict XVI, took more than a year to formally dismiss him. (© Daily Telegraph, London)