SANTIAGO, Chile (CNS) — The Catholic Church in Chile announced that Father Gerardo Joannon, a prominent Chilean priest, will be sent to a community in Madrid “to initiate a process of psychological and spiritual accompaniment” after his alleged involvement in a scandal of stolen newborn babies.

Father Alex Vigueras, provincial superior of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Chile, said Aug. 12 that an internal investigation conducted by the Archdiocese of Santiago concluded there is credible evidence that Father Joannon was involved in irregular adoptions during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.

The case is already being investigated by Chilean Judge Mario Carroza, who is working to establish the extent of the network that stole newborn babies from single mothers to give them to married couples during the 1970s and 1980s.

The victims were unmarried women, generally from well-off families, who were pressured by their relatives to give up their child for adoption to avoid the social stigma of unmarried motherhood. If they refused to do so, they were led to believe that their baby had died during childbirth.

Father Vigueras said Father Joannon “actively participated in two cases of illegal adoptions” and celebrated Masses for one of these babies, despite the fact that he “always knew that both children didn’t die at birth.”

The priest even had an “inappropriate relationship” with one of the mothers, he said, and added that “he should assume his responsibilities and ask for forgiveness.” Father Vigueras asked for forgiveness, too, on behalf of his congregation.

The provincial said he ordered Father Joannon to move to Spain in October “to initiate a process of psychological and spiritual accompaniment. During this time, he will not have pastoral responsibilities.”

Marcela Labrana, head of Chile’s child protection agency within the Ministry of Justice, asked the Chilean church to keep Father Joannon in Chile to help “clarify the truth in this case.”

Father Vigueras said Father Joannon has stated on two occasions that he would return to Chile if needed by justice officials.

Earlier in the summer, Father Joannon told a local magazine that he did what he did after being contacted by families affected by unwanted pregnancies and because he wanted to avoid possible abortions.