A prosecutor said Thursday he will pursue sex-abuse charges against retired Springfield Bishop Thomas Dupre (search), who is accused of plying two altar boys with alcohol and molesting them while he was a parish priest in the 1970s.

If a grand jury indicts him, Dupre would become the first bishop charged in the sex scandal that engulfed the Roman Catholic church two years ago.

There have been at least a dozen grand jury investigations involving how bishops dealt with abuse claims, and four bishops have resigned after being accused of sexual misconduct.

"I believe that there is a serious potential here that for the very first time in the United States and possibly in the world there could be a prosecution of a U.S. bishop for crimes relating to the sexual abuse of children," said attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr., who represents the accusers.

Dupre, 70, stepped down Feb. 11, citing health reasons. His retirement came a day after The Republican newspaper of Springfield confronted Dupre with the abuse allegations.

Dupre's lawyer, Michael Jennings, has not commented on the allegations. He did not immediately return a call for comment on Thursday.

MacLeish has said Dupre sexually abused the boys for years and asked them to keep quiet about the abuse when he was made auxiliary bishop in 1990.

"I have determined that there is probable cause to support these allegations," Hampden District Attorney William Bennett said. "Therefore, I have decided to present the matter to the grand jury for a full and complete review of all evidence."

Bennett said the statute of limitations on the alleged abuse has likely expired. But because Dupre allegedly tried to conceal the abuse as recently as last year, it may still be possible to charge him with molesting the boys, Bennett said.

Both accusers have met with officials from the Springfield Diocese (search) and Boston Archdiocese (search), where the sex scandal broke. A report on the church's internal investigation was forwarded to the Vatican earlier this week.

Dupre served nine years as head of the diocese in Springfield, about 90 miles west of Boston.

Since his retirement, Dupre has been at St. Luke Institute, a private Catholic psychiatric hospital in Maryland where the Boston Archdiocese sent many priests for treatment after sexual abuse allegations were made against them. The institute treats priests with emotional, behavioral, and psychological problems.

Mark Dupont, a spokesman for the Diocese of Springfield, said "the diocese will continue to cooperate in this investigation."

Bennett said investigators searched Dupre's office at the chancery and seized files. He would not specify the nature of the files taken by authorities.

One of the bishop's accusers was 12 and a recent immigrant to America when his family was befriended by Dupre, who offered to teach the child English. MacLeish said they had oral and anal sex and bought pornography together. The abuse lasted until the boy began dating a girl in high school, MacLeish said.

That boy introduced Dupre to a friend who also was abused, MacLeish said. He said Dupre plied the two boys with wine and cognac before raping them.

One of the accusers, who is gay, came forward with his claims after hearing Dupre speak out against the legalization of same-sex marriage, MacLeish said.

MacLeish said his clients agreed to remain silent, and kept in touch with Dupre after he was appointed bishop in 1995. Dupre sent one client birthday and holiday cards, and would occasionally give him money.

But MacLeish said, "At no time was any money sought by either of our clients as a condition of silence."

Dupre has been criticized for his handling of sex abuse allegations against defrocked priest Richard Lavigne, a convicted pedophile who is also a suspect in the murder of an altar boy. But the claims made by MacLeish's clients are the first public accusations against the bishop himself.