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Pope pulls ambassador to Dominican Republic amid abuse allegations

From Diulka Perez, For CNN
September 4, 2013 -- Updated 1959 GMT (0359 HKT)
Pope Francis is seen during his weekly open-air general audience on September 4, 2013 in St.Peters square at the Vatican.
Pope Francis is seen during his weekly open-air general audience on September 4, 2013 in St.Peters square at the Vatican.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: "We have formally opened an investigation," the attorney general says
  • The pope recalls the Vatican's ambassador to the Dominican Republic
  • A report connected the nuncio to child abuse and pedophilia, church rep says
  • Wesolowski could not be reached for comment

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (CNN) -- Prosecutors began a criminal investigation Wednesday into the Vatican's former ambassador to the Dominican Republic, a day after a local church representative said the pope had recalled the envoy because of child abuse allegations.

"We have formally opened an investigation," Dominican Attorney General Francisco Dominguez Brito told reporters. "Here we have to work with two legal aspects, first national laws and also international laws in his status as a diplomat, which implies other mechanisms of investigation and judgment."

The Vatican confirmed Wednesday that Jozef Wesolowski had been removed from his post and that an investigation is under way but did not say what allegations were made.

Wesolowski had been an apostolic nuncio, the Vatican's official representative in the Dominican Republic.

But the pope pulled him from the post last month after an internal church report connected him with child abuse and pedophilia, according to Monsignor Agripino Nunez Collado, the rector of a Catholic university and spokesman for the church in the country.

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"It is a situation that really shames and hurts the conscience of all Catholics," he told reporters Tuesday. "Really when there are these kinds of situations, justice must be done."

The former nuncio's whereabouts were unclear Wednesday, and he could not be reached by CNN en EspaƱol for comment.

The situation goes beyond the authority of Dominican church officials, Nunez said, because Wesolowski was the Vatican's envoy there.

"It was a surprise for me. It is an unprecedented case," Nunez said. "An ambassador of the Holy See, that it reaches that level."

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi confirmed Wesolowski's removal and that "an investigation is ongoing regarding the accusations moved toward him."

The church's sexual abuse guidelines allow local dioceses to make the initial decisions on the removal of accused priests. Papal nuncios, however, are appointed and supervised by the Vatican.

Before he was elected pope, Francis said that he supports a "zero tolerance" approach to clergy sexual abuse.

In 2012, when Francis was still Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, he said that when he was asked for advice by another bishop, "I told him to take away the priests' licenses, not to allow them to exercise the priesthood any more, and to begin a canonical trial in that diocese's court."

For years, the Catholic Church has faced calls for reform in the wake of scandals involving the sexual abuse of children by priests and allegations of corruption.

Shortly after his election to the papacy, Francis told a senior Vatican official to "act decisively" against sexual abuse and carry out "due proceedings against the guilty."

In July, the pope made it a crime to abuse children sexually or physically on Vatican grounds. The acts were already crimes under church law, but are now specifically outlawed within the Vatican city-state, which is home to hundreds of people.

Journalist Livia Borghese and CNN's Catherine E. Shoichet, Daniel Burke and Hada Messia contributed to this report.

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