VATICAN CITY (AP) — Catholic officials in Italy have threatened former altar boys of the pope with criminal defamation charges for having publicly accused an older seminarian of sexual misconduct when they lived together at the youth seminary inside the Vatican gardens.

Church lawyers in the diocese of Como have also warned an Italian investigative news program against broadcasting the boys' claims and have purportedly pressed a church official to recant his suggestion of a cover-up.

The response is indicative of how the allegations of gay sex among altar boys inside the Vatican walls have touched a raw nerve in the Vatican and the Italian church. The reaction has been particularly acute within a small Catholic association, the Opera Don Folci, which runs the St. Pius X preseminary in a palazzo just steps away from where Pope Francis lives.

About a dozen boys, some as young as 13, live in the residence and serve as altar boys for papal Masses in St. Peter's Basilica.

The accusations concern a former seminarian who is now a young priest for the Como dioceses and member of the Don Folci association. Reporter Gaetano Pecoraro interviewed an ex-student who said the seminarian would come into his dorm at night demanding oral sex, starting when he was 13 and continuing until he was 18.

The seminarian was a year older and held a position of authority over the other students, reported the ex-student who was identified only as "Marco."

The student's roommate, Kamil Jarzembowski, said he witnessed dozens of incidents, first denouncing them to seminary officials, and then in writing to cardinals and finally the pope in 2014. Church officials say internal church investigations were conducted, though initially not interviewing the boys in question, and the claims were determined to be false.

The accused seminarian, meanwhile, was ordained a priest earlier this year. None of the accusers continued on to the priesthood.

The former students, including another one who reported a groping incident when the seminarian was 20 and he was 15, have gone public with their allegations in a book and series of investigative television reports on the program "Le Iene" (The Hyenas).

Their testimony prompted the Vatican to announce Nov. 18 that it was reopening an investigation into the case because "new elements" had emerged. The Vatican said it wanted to "shine full light on what really happened."

Before the Vatican acted, the Opera Don Folci lashed out at the ex-students' allegations in a statement on its website, calling them "mud," a "violent attack on the church" and nothing more than "calumny and falsifications."

A lawyer representing the Don Folci association, Riccardo Rolando Riccardi, wrote to at least one former student that he was preparing a criminal defamation case in Rome's tribunal "for the alleged crime committed by the divulgation of news to the press about alleged acts of sexual assault that allegedly occurred" in the seminary.

According to the letter dated Nov. 17, which was seen by The Associated Press, Riccardi instructed the ex-student to come in for questioning or face interrogation by Rome prosecutors.

Riccardi didn't respond to an email seeking comment. None of the phone numbers listed for his firm online was functional.

Separately, Le Iene revealed during its broadcast last week that it had received a letter from the diocese of Como warning it against proceeding with its story. The letter, which was shown during the broadcast, cited the outcome of church investigations into the matter that found "everything that was alleged turned out to be unfounded."

However, Pecoraro interviewed the Como vicar who handled the investigation, the Rev. Andrea Stabellini, who confessed when he thought the camera wasn't filming that he had recommended the investigation continue because he believed there was sufficient evidence offered by the boys. He was overruled.

In an interview with AP, Pecoraro said he had since come to learn that diocesan and other church officials were pressuring Stabellini to recant.

The Como diocese didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment. After initially defending its decision to ordain the seminarian, the diocese now says it wants full light shed, and urged all involved to cooperate with the Vatican's new investigation.

Stabellini had said a top Vatican cardinal, Angelo Comastri, intervened in the case. Comastri, who oversees the seminary as the pope's vicar for the Vatican City State, has denied any cover-up and said he ordered three separate investigations after receiving anonymous allegations about wrongdoing in 2013.

After each probe conducted by seminary or church officials determined that the allegations were unfounded, Comastri said he replaced the leadership at the seminary and ordered the seminarian moved to Como, where he now works as a priest.