PARIS (Reuters) - The Vatican has lifted the diplomatic immunity of its envoy in France, the French foreign ministry said on Monday, opening the way for Archbishop Luigi Ventura to be questioned by prosecutors over accusations of sexual molestation.
French authorities opened an investigation into Ventura, 74, in January after a junior official at Paris City Hall accused him of molestation.
Because of his diplomatic immunity -- the position of papal nuncio is equivalent to ambassador -- prosecutors have been unable to question Ventura about the allegations.
"The ministry for European affairs... has received confirmation from the Holy See of its renunciation of immunity in relation to the proceedings," a spokeswoman for the French foreign ministry said in a statement.
Ventura has not commented on the allegations. His office in Paris has declined to comment.
The Catholic Church worldwide, including senior church figures, is reeling from crises involving sexual abuse which have deeply damaged confidence in the Church in the United States, Chile, Australia, Ireland and elsewhere.
In a statement following the announcement in Paris, Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti called the action "an extraordinary gesture that confirms the nuncio’s willingness, expressed from the outset, to cooperate fully and spontaneously with French judicial authorities."
Gisotti added that the Vatican had waited for the end of the preliminary phase of the investigation and informed the French government last week of its decision to lift the immunity.
France's former minister of European affairs, Nathalie Loiseau, called in March for Ventura's immunity to be lifted, saying justice could otherwise not be done.
"At this point, (Archbishop Ventura) benefits from diplomatic immunity, but the Holy See is clearly aware of the serious accusations that have been brought against the apostolic nuncio and I don't doubt for a second that the Holy See will do the right thing," Loiseau told CNews at the time.
"This inquiry needs to be allowed to reach its conclusion, what matters is that the truth be known," she said, adding that Ventura enjoyed the presumption of innocence.
The Vatican has previously said that it is aware of the investigation into Ventura and is awaiting the outcome of the inquiry.
In Ventura's case, a City Hall official told Reuters the archbishop was suspected of having touched the buttocks of the male staffer during the mayor's New Year address.
Since the first allegations were made, at least one other man has come forward to make a formal complaint against Ventura alleging similar behaviour.
In February, Pope Francis held a conference at the Vatican to discuss sexual abuse of minors amongst the clergy.
He vowed that the Roman Catholic Church would "spare no effort" to bring abusers to justice and would not cover up or underestimate the levels of abuse.
(Additional reporting by Sophie Louet in Paris and Philip Pullella in Rome; Writing by Luke Baker, Editing by William Maclean)