The Justice Department has initiated a criminal investigation of the financial and legal problems of the Pauline Fathers, according to a copyrighted story by Gannett News Service.

The Paulines, officially the Order of St. Paul the First Hermit, is a small group of Catholic monks headquartered in Doylestown, Pa.

The order already is under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service and the Securities and Exchange Commission. All of the probes grew out of a series published by Gannett, detailing the order's financial mismanagement.

The news service reported that the monks, under the leadership of their American vicar general, the Rev. Michael M. Zembrzuski, squandered nearly $20 million in loans, gifts and contributions, leaving the order nearly penniless and several thousand elderly Catholic lenders unpaid.

Donations were diverted to tax-avoiding business schemes, personal loans and investments masterminded by Zembrzuski and a small group of nonreligious business and legal advisers, Gannett reported.

It also said that Pope John Paul II personally stepped in and directed that no disciplinary action be taken against Zembrzuski or other priests who had been accused by some church officials of "immoral" personal and fiscal activities.

One Justice Department source told Gannett that the pontiff's role in the matter became a matter of concern during strategy discussions among government prosecutors that took place while the pope was visiting the United States earlier this month.

The international scope, sensitivity and potential cost of the investigation -- and possible prosecution -- prompted officials in the U.S. Attorney's office in Philadelphia to seek direction from the Justice Department here.

The attorneys agreed to coordinate their activities in what seems likely to be a long investigative effort.However, Justice Department spokesmen, as a matter of policy, would neither confirm nor deny that the Paulines were being probed.