A priest working in the apostolic nunciature in Washington, D.C., has been recalled to the Vatican after U.S. authorities cited possible violations of child-pornography laws, the Vatican said Friday.
The Vatican declined to identify the diplomat nor disclose which nationality he belongs to, but confirmed he is a senior member of the Vatican embassy staff and that he is now in Vatican City.
According to the Vatican’s Yearbook, three priest diplomats serve in the nunciature as counselors, in addition to the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Christoph Pierre, who has been ruled out.
In a statement released this afternoon, the Vatican said that after being notified by the U.S. authorities of the possible violations, the Holy See, “following the practice of sovereign states, recalled the priest in question.”
It added that having received such information from the U.S. government, the Secretariat of State passed this information to the promoter of justice of the Vatican Tribunal — the Vatican’s chief prosecutor.
It went on to say that the promoter of justice then “opened an investigation and has already commenced international collaboration to obtain elements relative to the case.”
The Vatican also stressed that, in accordance with laws “applicable to all preliminary inquiries, the investigations carried out by the promoter of justice are subject to investigative confidentiality.”
The Associated Press reported that the State Department had asked the Vatican to lift the official’s diplomatic immunity on Aug. 21, but that request was denied.
It added that for the State Department to make such a request, its lawyers would have needed to be convinced there was a reasonable cause for criminal prosecution.
Recalling Vatican envoys is not new: In 2013, Msgr. Jozef Wesolowski was ordered to leave as apostolic nuncio to the Dominican Republic after being accused of sexually abusing young boys on the Caribbean island. Two years later, while being held under house arrest in Vatican City, he was indicted for possession of child pornography.
The Vatican justified not sending Wesolowski back to the Dominican Republic for trial by submitting him first to a canonical court proceeding at the Vatican and having him tried in the Vatican's criminal court, which has jurisdiction over the Holy See's diplomatic corps.
Wesolowski was laicized but died of natural causes before the criminal trial got underway.
Should the Vatican prosecutor conclude enough evidence justifies a trial, these are likely to be the criminal proceedings taken in this case.
The possession of child pornography is considered a “canonical crime” in the Church, and in 2010, Benedict XVI added it to the list of “most grave delicts,” meaning crimes, which are dealt with directly by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and can result in dismissal from the clerical state.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued the following statement Friday:
"This is a serious issue," he said. "We hope the Holy See will be forthcoming with more details. While we don’t know all the facts, consistent with our Charter [for the Protection of Children and Young People], we reaffirm that when such allegations occur, an immediate, thorough and transparent investigation should begin in cooperation with law enforcement and immediate steps be taken to protect children. The protection of children and young people is our most sacred responsibility.”