A scandal-ridden Catholic diocese in Italy where priests posted naked photos of themselves on gay websites, raided church coffers and sexually harassed parishioners is to be investigated by a special envoy to Pope Francis.
The Pope reportedly intends to send an "apostolic administrator" to assess allegations that the diocese of Albenga-Imperia, in the Liguria region of northern Italy, has hosted a string of "playboy priests" moonlighting as barmen, stealing parish funds and getting tattooed. Described by one Italian newspaper as "the most gossiped about diocese in Italy", it has been run for the last 25 years by Bishop Mario Oliveri, 70.
He is expected to be replaced in the near future by an auxiliary bishop, according to Il Secolo XIX, the region's main newspaper.
Pope Francis has already sent Adriano Bernardini, an apostolic nuncio, or ambassador, to conduct a preliminary investigation into the scandals thay have allegedly unfolded under Bishop Oliveri's watch.
The bishop himself is not accused of any wrongdoing, but is reported to have been overly charitable in recruiting "black sheep" priests with distinctly chequered pasts, including trainee priests expelled from seminaries for misconduct.
They include a priest who was found guilty of organising an under-age prostitution ring and others who posted nude photos of themselves on Facebook and gay websites.
Priests in the diocese have been accused of sexually harassing parishioners, living with gay partners and stealing Communion money.
Father Luciano Massaferro, for instance, a parish priest, was sentenced to nearly eight years in prison after being found guilty of sexually abusing an altar boy. He had been strenuously defended by the bishop.
The large number of scandals were brought to the Vatican's attention by appalled parishioners, including a doctor, Luisa Bonello, who wrote to the Pope in February. She committed suicide last month.
Asked about the investigation, Bishop Oliveri, a fervent traditionalist who once celebrated a three-hour Mass in Latin, told La Repubblica newspaper: "I don't want to talk about it. This is not the right time."
A Vatican spokesman said that the Holy See would not comment on an ongoing investigation.
"We never comment on these matters - they are confidential and it wouldn't be correct," Father Ciro Benedettini told The Daily Telegraph.