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Puerto Rico to investigate more church sex abuse allegations in another diocese

Puerto Rico's justice secretary said Thursday that he has ordered an investigation into alleged sex abuse allegations involving another one of the island's Roman Catholic dioceses.

The allegations originate from the Diocese of Mayaguez in Puerto Rico's western region, and the announcement comes just days after government prosecutors said they were investigating similar allegations against six priests in the Diocese of Arecibo who have been defrocked.

"It's apparently a much greater problem than previously thought," Justice Secretary Cesar Miranda told reporters.

The Diocese of Mayaguez said in a statement that it has handled four cases of alleged sex abuse.

The most recent case dates from 2013 and is currently pending before the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles such accusations. The priest accused in that case has been removed from the ministry, the diocese said.

In the other three cases, the diocese said that another one, dating to 2011, is also pending before the Vatican and the person involved has been removed from the ministry.

It said the Vatican is also reviewing a 2009 case that involves a person who is no longer with the ministry and asked to be returned to the lay state, and that a 2006 case involves a person no longer active in the diocese.

A request to be returned to the lay state in the context of sex abuse is the ecclesial equivalent of a no contest plea in which a priest admits to wrongdoing and asks to be relieved of his obligations. It is similar to being defrocked in that the outcome is the same, but in those cases, the church grants laicization because a priest asks for it in the context of being accused of a canonical crime rather than wait for the church to issue a punitive defrocking.

The diocese noted that those who made the complaints are adults and have asked that their cases not be reported to police. Diocese officials said in a statement that they would not issue further comment because the investigations are ongoing.

"This diocese is committed to a zero tolerance policy," it said in a statement. "Any complaint is investigated immediately."

Further details about the cases were not immediately available and calls to the Diocese of Mayaguez went unanswered Thursday afternoon.

Officials with Puerto Rico's Justice Department recently accused the Diocese of Arecibo of withholding additional information for a separate criminal investigation. The diocese in response filed a lawsuit stating it was protecting the privacy of the alleged victims, one of whom recently stated in a court filing that he does not want his personal information shared with prosecutors.

A judge on Friday is scheduled to hear the lawsuit.

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Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.