By NICOLE WINFIELD and EVA VERGARA, Associated Press

VATICAN CITY (AP) - Chile's Catholic Church is bracing for revelations from a letter from Pope Francis to the country's bishops following a scandal over his strong defense of a bishop accused of witnessing and ignoring sex abuse by Chile's most notorious predator priest.

Jaime Coiro, spokesman for the Chilean bishops' conference, said the letter would be released later Wednesday in both Chile and at the Vatican. In a tweet, Coiro said the pope wrote it after receiving a report by Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's longtime sex abuse prosecutor.

Francis sent Scicluna to investigate allegations of sex abuse cover-up by Bishop Juan Barros, a protege of the Rev. Fernando Karadima.

Karadima was a charismatic preacher who was removed from ministry by the Vatican for sexually abusing minors and sentenced in 2011 to a lifetime of penance and prayer. Karadima had long been a darling of the Catholic hierarchy, and his victims have accused church leaders of covering up his crimes to protect the church's reputation.

Scicluna and his colleague, the Rev. Jordi Bertomeu, spent nearly two weeks in Chile and New York earlier this year interviewing Karadima's victims, who for years have denounced Barros' silence and were stunned by Francis' strong defense of him during his January visit to Chile.

Many of Chile's bishops, and members of Francis' own sex abuse advisory board, had questioned Barros' suitability to lead a diocese given claims by Karadima's victims that Barros stood by and did nothing while Karadima groped them.

Francis overrode their concerns and appointed Barros bishop of the southern Chilean diocese of Osorno in 2015, saying the church had investigated the claims against him and found them to be baseless. Francis called the victims' accusations against Barros "calumny" and twice refused his resignation.

But following an outcry in Chile during his January trip and suggestions that Francis didn't have all the information, Francis dispatched Scicluna to get the bottom of the scandal. Scicluna, long a hero to sex abuse victims and a thorn in the side of church leaders who oppose his tough line against pedophiles, briefed Francis on his interviews last month.

Expectations in Chile were high following Scicluna's visit, which prolonged by his emergency gall bladder surgery there. That extra time enabled Scicluna and Bertomeu, an official in the Vatican office that handles abuse cases, to hear from the victims of other sexual predators. The implication was that the problem that has devastated the Catholic Church's credibility in Chile wasn't just about Barros or Karadima.

Victims say the Barros affair is merely emblematic of a culture in the Chilean church that covers up for abusers, gives them minimal sanctions or moves them around rather than adopt the "one-strike-and-you're-out" policy adopted by U.S. bishops.

There are currently five Chilean dioceses that need new bishops, including Santiago, where the archbishop, Cardinal Riccardo Ezzati, 76, is due to retire.

That sets the stage for a possible new course in Chile if Francis chooses to take it.

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Vergara reported from Santiago, Chile.

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