A Catholic priest working as a diplomat at the Vatican’s embassy in Washington has been recalled to Rome after American authorities cited him for possible violations of child pornography laws. Vatican authorities made the announcement on Friday but did not identify the priest nor his nationality. However, he was identified as a senior member of the staff at the apostolic nunciature -- the Vatican embassy. The priest in question is now at the Vatican.

According to the Vatican’s Yearbook (Anuario), three priests serve in diplomatic functions at the nunciature in addition to Archbishop Christoph Pierre -- a Frenchman who serves as the nuncio or Vatican ambassador. The latter clergyman has been ruled out.

In a statement released on Friday afternoon, the Vatican declared that “following the practice of sovereign states,” authorities “recalled the priest in question.” The Holy See is the office occupied by Pope Francis who, in addition to his ecclesiastical role, is the ruler of the sovereign state of the Vatican City. Because of its status as a sovereign state, the Vatican has diplomatic representatives all over the world and at the United Nations. It even has its own jail. Vatican diplomats, regardless of their previous citizenship, bear Vatican passports.

After being notified by American authorities of the possible violations of U.S. law, the Vatican’s Secretariat of State passed this information to the Promoter of Justice of the Vatican Tribunal — the Vatican’s chief prosecutor. The latter has “opened an investigation and has already commenced international collaboration to obtain elements relative to the case.” The Vatican’s statement also noted that in accordance with laws “applicable to all preliminary inquiries, the investigations carried out by the Promoter of Justice are subject to investigative confidentiality.”

Various media reports indicate that even while the State Department asked the Vatican to lift the priest-diplomat’s diplomatic immunity on August 21, the Vatican denied the request. Similarly, in most cases of such requests by foreign governments, the United States also refuses to relinquish the diplomatic status of its representatives that protects them from local prosecution. The Vatican noted 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.

The Vatican has recalled its diplomats in the past. For example, in 2013, Monsignor Jozef Wesolowski was ordered to leave as apostolic nuncio to the Dominican Republic after being accused of sexually abusing young boys there. Two years later, while being held under house arrest in Vatican City, he was indicted for possession of child pornography. The Vatican refused to send Wesolowski back to the Dominican Republic for trial, but did try him in a canonical court proceeding at the Vatican and sent the case to the Vatican's criminal court, which has jurisdiction over the Holy See's diplomatic corps. Wesolowski was stripped of his priestly functions and died of natural causes before the criminal trial got underway.

The mere possession of child pornography is considered a “canonical crime” in the Catholic Church and is considered one of a list of “most grave delicts” that are considered by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and can result in dismissal from the clergy. 

The president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston, released a statement stating “The protection of children and young people is our most sacred responsibility.”

"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, 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.”




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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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