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 and sought evidence from the U.S.
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. And 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, and said the 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, didn't immediately comment, and the Vatican gave no details about what, if any, evidence had been provided to persuade it to recall the priest.
In a statement, the Vatican said the 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.
Priests who are diplomats in the Vatican's Washington embassy usually receive authorization from the archdiocese of Washington to preside at Mass or perform other clergy functions in local parishes, although they only do so on very limited occasions, a spokesman for the archdiocese said.
Under the U.S. bishops' child protection policy, local church officials must review allegations of child porn possession against their priests. However, the requirements in the diplomat's case are unclear. The Archdiocese of Washington doesn't know the name of the accused priest, the spokesman said.
Still, the archdiocese plans to give all local clergy copies of public statements about the case from the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops so priests can answer any questions from parishioners, the spokesman said.
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 then-ambassador to the Dominican Republic, who was recalled in 2013 after being accused of sexually abusing young boys on the Caribbean island.