VATICAN CITY — The Vatican is sending its top two sex crimes investigators to Mexico on a fact-finding and assistance mission as the Catholic hierarchy in the world’s second-largest Catholic country begins to reckon with decades of clergy sex abuse and cover-up.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Monsignor Jordi Bertomeo teamed up in 2018 to investigate the Chilean church and its wretched record of protecting pedophile priests – a bombshell expose that resulted in every active Chilean bishop offering to resign.

Their new mission to Mexico, due to take place March 20-27, was announced Monday in Mexico and at the Vatican. Officials stressed it was not an investigation per se but an assistance mission to help the Mexican church combat abuse.

Nevertheless, the Vatican embassy in Mexico City expressly asked victims to come forward to speak with the two prelates, offering victims an email address to send their testimony, a phone number to call and total privacy and confidentiality.

When Scicluna and Bertomeo went to Chile, ostensibly to investigate a single old case of cover-up, they were stunned as more than 60 victims came forward to speak with them about a variety of cases around the country, providing enough testimony and evidence to fill a 2,600-page dossier.

Their report was crucial in helping Pope Francis understand he had completely misread the problem of sex abuse and coverup in the church. The Argentine Jesuit apologized repeatedly and has taken measures in particular to try to ensure more accountability among bishops.

The Mexican bishops conference said it asked for the mission, saying it would benefit children and the most vulnerable in Mexico.

“We are certain it will help us respond better to these cases, looking for civil and canonical justice under the principle of ‘zero tolerance’ so that there is no impunity in our church,” the bishops said in a statement.

Scicluna and Bertomeo will meet with the Mexican bishops as well as the superiors of religious orders in Mexico, as well as any victims that choose to speak to them.

Their mission comes as the Mexican hierarchy is beginning to reckon with decades of sex abuse and cover-up, admitting recently that it had investigated 271 priests in the last 10 years for sexual abuse.

The admission, though, was belated and came as Mexican civil authorities begin to ratchet up pressure after long deferring to the church, which wields enormous influence in Mexico. But earlier this year, Mexico’s lower Chamber of Deputies approved a proposal to remove the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases. The Senate still needs to vote on it but it is expected to pass.

In addition, two senators presented a legislative initiative to create an independent investigatory commission into clerical sex abuse in Mexico. It’s fate, however, is unclear. The senators belong to the Morena party of President Andres Manuel López Obrador, but there is no timetable for voting and other party lawmakers have spoken out agains the proposal.

Mexico is the second-largest Catholic country after Brazil, and Vatican officials have long known that the number of cases that were being reported to the Vatican of abuse were a fraction of the total.

Victims, however, are beginning to come forward, none more vocally than Ana Lucia Salazar, a Mexican TV personality who was molested repeatedly as a child by a Legion of Christ priest in Cancun. Her case was covered up for three decades until she went public last year, drawing so much attention to the problem that she forced Mexico’s bishops and the Vatican ambassador to denounce the Legion publicly.

Scicluna, the Vatican’s longtime sex crimes prosecutor, is intimately familiar with the Legion and the mechanisms of power in the Mexican hierarchy: The Maltese archbishop conducted the 2002-2003 investigation into the Legion’s late founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, that resulted in him being forced to retire to a life of penance and prayer for having raped and molested his seminarians.

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