The Vatican said Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna would travel to Chile "to listen to those who have expressed the desire to provide elements" about the case of Bishop Juan Barros.
The move marks the first known time the Vatican has launched a full-blown investigation into allegations of sex abuse cover-up, and it comes after Francis was harshly criticized by the media, survivors of abuse, his fellow Jesuits and some of his top advisers for his unwavering defense of Barros.
The Barros controversy dominated Francis' just-ended trip to Chile and Peru and exposed his blind spot about clerical abuse. Even the head of his abuse advisory panel, Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, publicly rebuked him for his dismissive treatment of victims and tried to set him straight.
Barros was a protege of the Rev. Fernando Karadima, a charismatic and politically powerful priest who was sanctioned by the Vatican for sexually abusing minors in 2011. His victims testified to Chilean prosecutors that Barros and other priests in the El Bosque community saw Karadima kissing youngsters and were aware of his perversions, but did nothing.
After Karadima was sanctioned by a church court, Chile's bishops were so intent on trying to stem the fallout from the scandal that they persuaded the Vatican to have Barros and two other Karadima-trained bishops resign and take a yearlong sabbatical, according to a 2015 letter obtained by The Associated Press.
But Francis stepped in and put a stop to the plan, arguing there wasn't any proof against them. He overruled the Chilean bishops' objections and in January 2015 appointed Barros to head the diocese of Osorno. Barros' presence there has badly split the dioceses, with both laity and priests rejecting him ever since.
The issue haunted Francis' recent trip, and imploded after he told a Chilean journalist Jan. 18 that the accusations against Barros were slander and he demanded "proof" against Barros to believe them. After O'Malley rebuked him, Francis apologized for having demanded proof, but he stood by his belief that the accusations against Barros were "calumny."
"I am convinced he is innocent," Francis declared during an in-flight news conference while returning home from Peru on Jan. 21.
Francis seemed unaware that Karadima's victims had placed Barros at the scene and were the original source of the accusations against him.
Barros said Tuesday that he welcomed "with faith and joy" the pope's decision to have Scicluna investigate and prayed that the process would uncover the truth, according to a statement read by the spokesman of the Chilean bishops' conference. He has denied seeing any abuse or knowing of it.
In the days after the pope's comments, Karadima victim Juan Carlos Cruz pointedly told Francis that he couldn't offer the "proof" the pope demanded.
"As if I could have taken a selfie or a photo while Karadima abused me and others and Juan Barros stood by watching it all," Cruz tweeted Jan. 19.
After Francis insisted he had never received any testimony from victims but would welcome it, Cruz told The Associated Press: "If he wanted evidence, why didn't he reach out to us when we were willing to reaffirm the testimony that not only us, but so many witnesses, have been providing for more than 15 years?"
Scicluna is going to Chile precisely to do that. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said Scicluna would travel to Santiago "as soon as possible," but he noted that the case requires preparation and thoroughness.
Karadima's victims, who are Barros' main accusers, declined to comment Tuesday on the advice of their lawyers. A group of lay Catholics from Osorno, who have been protesting Barros' appointment for three years, said they would be willing to speak to Scicluna but expressed some doubt about the procedure and his independence.
"We hope the pope reacted based on the sentiments of the faithful, more than media pressure, but he did it," said a statement from Juan Carlos Claret, spokesman of the Osorno laity group.
Scicluna was the Vatican's long-time sex crimes prosecutor in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and he was instrumental in finally bringing to justice the 20th century Catholic Church's most notorious pedophile, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ.
Scicluna was put in charge of gathering testimony from Maciel's victims, the Legion seminarians who for years had denounced Maciel's sex crimes, only to be discredited publicly by senior Vatican and Legion officials and accused of slander.
Scicluna, currently archbishop of Valletta and head of a sex abuse appeals tribunal at the Vatican, is now something of a hero to survivors for having vigorously prosecuted Maciel over the objections of the Vatican's then-secretary of state, as well as thousands of other pedophiles.
That former secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, was the Vatican ambassador in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship and was known to have been a supporter of Karadima. Sodano still wields influence in the Vatican as the dean of the College of Cardinals, and in that capacity recently celebrated the funeral Mass of Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in disgrace as the archbishop of Boston after documents showed he moved serial pedophiles around rather than report them to police.
Andrew Chesnut, the Catholic Studies chair at Virginia Commonwealth University, said Francis' decision to send in Scicluna was an attempt to "repair the damage inflicted on his Chilean tour."
"The Vatican had already attempted to negotiate the resignation of Barros, so it's likely that the embattled bishop will step down soon," Chesnut predicted.
Barros twice offered his resignation, but Francis twice rejected it.
The decision to send Scicluna in to investigate allegations of a cover-up marks a new phase in the Vatican's decades-long effort to come to terms with clergy abuse, and it could fuel demands for the Vatican to more actively investigate and sanction religious superiors who turn a blind eye to priests who rape, sodomize and molest children.
While thousands of abusive priests have been defrocked and sanctioned over the years, only a handful of bishops are known to have been removed because they mishandled reported cases.
Francis vowed to hold such bishops accountable, but he scrapped a proposed Vatican tribunal to discipline negligent bishops after Vatican canon lawyers objected. Instead, he said such cases would be investigated by existing Vatican offices, but the process lacks any transparency.