ROME – Pope Francis on Sunday criticized what he said were groundless and offensive accusations against his predecessor, John Paul II, after the brother of a missing Italian teen aired an audiotape with the allegations on national television.

Speaking to faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his Sunday Regina Coeli address, the pope noted that the day marked the Catholic feast of Divine Mercy, instituted by Pope Saint John Paul II in 2000.

“Certain of interpreting the sentiments of faithful from all over the world, I direct a grateful thought to the memory of Saint John Paul II, who in recent days has been the object of offensive and unfounded allegations,” he said.

Francis’s remarks marked the first time he has spoken out publicly about the allegations, which arose several days ago when Pietro Orlandi, the brother of missing Italian teen Emanuela Orlandi, gave Vatican prosecutors investigating his sister’s disappearance an audiotape containing the alleged testimony of an Italian mobster saying John Paul II used to go out at night with some Polish monsignors to harass underage girls.

Orlandi later had the tape aired on Italian television network La7, one of the country’s leading nightly news programs, sparking intense backlash not just from the pope, but several top Vatican personalities.

The daughter of a Vatican employee, Emanuela disappeared while returning from a music lesson in June 1983 at the age of 15.

Since her disappearance nearly 40 years ago, the case has become Italy’s most famous unsolved mystery and has been a source of countless conspiracy theories over the years, having been linked to the plot to kill John Paul II, to Vatican financial scandals, and to the Italian criminal underworld.

In the four decades since her disappearance, her brother Pietro Orlandi has been the main protagonist in the past four decades in pushing for the truth, and ensuring that her case has not been forgotten.

Earlier this year the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice, its prosecutor’s office, reopened the case into Emanuela’s disappearance. That decision coincided with a decision by the Italian Parliament to reopen a parliamentary commission of inquest into the case.

The decision also comes in the wake of the airing of a popular new Netflix series, “Vatican Girl,” which explores the Orlandi case and delves into the various conspiracies that have surrounded it since the beginning.

Orlandi was interrogated by Vatican prosecutors for eight hours on Tuesday as part of their inquiry into his sister’s disappearance, during which he handed over evidence and documentation pertinent to the case, including the audiotape with the mobster testimony alleging that John Paul II had molested teenage girls.

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Soon after he gave an interview to La7 during which that portion of the audiotape was played, prompting the Vatican’s Editorial Director, Andrea Tornielli, to release a statement blasting the decision, saying the allegations were baseless and grounded on mere “hearsay.”

“Evidence? None. Clues? Least of all. Witnesses at least of second or third hand? Not even the shadow. Only anonymous defamatory accusations,” he said, calling it a “media massacre” and suggesting that a formal defamation complaint be made.

A full investigation into Emanuela’s disappearance is needed, he said, but insisted that “no one deserves to be defamed in this way, without even a trace of evidence, based on the rumors of some unknown character from the criminal underworld or some sleazy anonymous comment broadcast on TV.”

The allegations also drew criticism from John Paul II’s longtime secretary and the former archbishop of Krakow, Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who called the insinuations “rash” and “ignorable,” saying that far from credible, the allegations are in fact “ranting accusations, false from beginning to end, unrealistic, laughable border on comical if they weren’t tragic, indeed criminal themselves.”

Dziwisz criticized those who he said have sought to profit from Emanuela’s case and the media interest it has generated, voicing hope that the inquiries into her disappearance would be free from “the maelstrom of misdirection, mythomanias, and profiteering” that have dominated the search for the truth thus far.

He also suggested legal action be taken. In the wake of his and Tornielli’s statements, Orlandi’s lawyer, Laura Sgrò, who accompanied him to his deposition with Vatican prosecutors on Tuesday, to issue a statement walking the allegations back, saying Orlandi “did not intend to make accusations against any person,” and that his only interest was the unconditional search for the truth.

In the wake of the media firestorm the allegations generated, the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice summoned Sgrò back on Saturday, asking that she provide information on the source of the audiotape and evidence of the person’s credibility.

Sgrò did not provide the information, but rather invoked privilege, and in a statement afterward accused the Vatican’s formal information platform, Vatican News, of publishing false information in an article stating that she refused to give Vatican prosecutors the names they had requested, arguing that she was bound by privilege.

In response, the head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communications, Italian layman Paolo Ruffini, issued a statement Saturday evening saying he spoke with the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice, who confirmed that neither Sgrò nor Orlandi had provided the information requested about the audiotape.

Pope Francis’s defense of John Paul II Sunday marked his first public intervention in the matter, and his most direct response to a Vatican-related media controversy to date.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen