Scores of new cases of priestly sexual abuse of minors have come to light in Chile, public prosecutors said Friday, deepening a crisis in the country's Catholic Church that has embroiled Pope Francis.
The country's chief prosecutor's office said the number of cases it was investigating had soared to 119 as more victims came forward.
A total of 167 bishops, priests and lay members of the church are now under investigation for sexual crimes committed in the South American country since 1960.
Seven of those under investigation are bishops and 96 are priests, but it was unclear from the figures released Friday how many were currently serving.
Among those implicated is the country's most senior Catholic figure, Santiago Archbishop Ricardo Ezzati, who faces accusations he helped cover up sexual abuse in his diocese.
Most of the evidence against him was gathered during a search of the archdiocese offices in Santiago earlier this month.
The search was ordered by the prosecutor in charge of the investigation, Emiliano Arias, after the church refused to hand over files to investigators, citing the need to respect victims.
Ezzati has denied allegations that he covered up cases of abuse, including those of a top aide, 56-year-old Oscar Munoz, who was jailed in July while a probe into allegations he raped at least seven children continues.
- Public outrage -
Reflecting public outrage over the investigation's findings, the Chilean parliament has begun moves to withdraw citizenship from the naturalized Italian-born Ezzati, who has protested his innocence.
A recent opinion poll by pollsters Cadem showed 96 percent of Chileans believe the church systematically covers up abuse by priests.
Pope Francis has already apologized repeatedly to Chileans over the scandal, admitting the church failed "to listen and react" to the allegations, but vowed to "restore justice."
In May, the Argentine pontiff accepted the resignation of five Chilean bishops amid accusations of abuse and related coverups.
Francis himself became mired in the scandal when, during a trip to Chile in January, he defended 61-year-old bishop Juan Barros, who was accused of covering up abuse by pedophile priest Fernando Karadima in the 1980s and 1990s.
Karadima was suspended for life by the Vatican over the allegations of child molestation.
Francis eventually accepted he was wrong to defend Barros and subsequently accepted his resignation.
State prosecutors began investigating scores of abuse cases following outrage around the country over the church's own probe into decades of abuse by priests, crimes over which it often failed to take any action or handed down lenient punishments.
Now bishops and other priests accused of abuse in Chile will face the full force of secular law.
- Number of cases triple -
Prosecutors initially indicated that 38 cases had been opened in the first weeks of their probe, which began in July.
"The number of investigations into sexual crimes committed by members of the Catholic Church has reached 119 cases," the state prosecutor said Friday in a statement.
Many of the cases have come to light after recent searches of properties belonging to the Marist Brothers religious order.
The Vatican recently defrocked a Marist priest Abel Perez, who confessed to sexually abusing 14 minors in the 1970s.
He admitted the abuses in 2010, but the Marists only reported his crimes to the authorities seven years later.
Earlier this month, Episcopal Conference president Santiago Silva announced a series of measures to "at least begin to resolve the serious problem we have in the church."
In an attempt to douse the fires of the crisis engulfing the Catholic Church in the South American country over the deluge of accusations against clergy, bishops have decided to publicly disclose the previous investigations on alleged sexual abuse of minors.
Previously, bishops had insisted that canonical law prevails over criminal law.
Juan Carlos Claret, the leader of a campaign group that opposed the Catholic Church's policy of transferring priests accused of abuse rather than sacking or turning them over to judicial authorities, told AFP the Episcopal Conference knew as early as 2007 of 120 priests involved in sexual abuse.
Church authorities "could have, and should have" acted against abusers of children, the country's president Sebastian Pinera said.