Skip to main content

The Journal Gazette

Friday, September 15, 2017 9:34 am

Vatican diplomat recalled amid child porn investigation

NICOLE WINFIELD and MATTHEW LEE | Associated Press

VATICAN CITY – A high-ranking priest working in the Vatican's embassy in Washington has been recalled after U.S. prosecutors asked for him to be charged there and face trial in a child pornography investigation, Vatican and U.S. officials said Friday.

The diplomat was suspected of possessing, but not producing or disseminating, child pornography including images of pre-pubescent children, a U.S. source familiar with the case said. The source was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Vatican declined to identify the priest, but said he was currently in Vatican City and that Vatican prosecutors had launched their own probe.

If the accusations pan out, the case would be a major embarrassment for the Vatican and Pope Francis, who has pledged "zero tolerance" for sexual abuse. The diplomat would be the second from the Vatican's diplomatic corps to face possible criminal charges for such crimes during Francis' papacy. Any trial in the Vatican would come as Francis' own financial czar, Cardinal George Pell, is on trial in his native Australia for alleged historic sex abuse cases.

The State Department said it had asked the Vatican to lift the official's diplomatic immunity on Aug. 21. It said that request was denied three days later. For the State Department to make such a request, its lawyers would have needed to be convinced that there was reasonable cause for criminal prosecution.

The circumstances that prompted prosecutors to make the request, however, weren't clear. The Justice Department, which would have brought any charges, did not immediately comment.

In a statement, the Vatican said the U.S. State Department had notified the Vatican on Aug. 21 of a "possible violation of laws relating to child pornography images" by one of its diplomats in Washington.

A U.S. official familiar with the case said the priest was a senior member of the Vatican embassy staff. The Vatican yearbook lists three counselors who work under the nuncio, or ambassador.

The Vatican said recalling the priest was consistent with diplomatic practice of sovereign states. In declining to identify him, the Vatican said the case was subject to confidentiality while still under investigation. It said the Vatican had asked for information about the case from the U.S; it wasn't clear if any had been provided.

The Vatican has recalled envoys before – including its former ambassador to the Dominican Republic, who was recalled in 2013 after being accused of sexually abusing young boys on the Caribbean island.

The Vatican justified its decision to remove Monsignor Jozef Wesolowski from Dominican jurisdiction by submitting him first to a canonical court proceeding at the Vatican, and then putting him on trial in the Vatican's criminal court, which has jurisdiction over the Holy See's diplomatic corps.

Wesolowski was defrocked by the church court. But he died before the criminal trial got underway.

Dominican prosecutors initially balked at the recall, and they never filed charges because of his immunity.

The Vatican doesn't have extradition treaties.

After he was defrocked, Wesolowski lost his diplomatic immunity and the Vatican said he could be tried by other courts. However, it refused to provide Dominican authorities with information about his whereabouts or how even he had pleaded to the charges.

The Vatican spokesman said he wouldn't preclude if the diplomat's case would also be referred to prosecutors in its canonical tribunal.

___

Lee reported from Washington.