VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has recalled a high-ranking priest working as a diplomat in the Holy See’s embassy in Washington after American authorities sought to strip his immunity and potentially charge him with possession of child pornography, the Vatican said Friday.
In a statement, the Vatican said that it had been notified by the State Department on Aug. 21 of “a possible violation of laws relating to child pornography images” by a member of its diplomatic corps.
The Vatican said the priest would face an investigation and potential trial in Vatican City. But some critics saw in the Vatican’s move a reflexive step to protect its own by whisking a priest away from a justice system in a foreign land.
The statement did not identify the cleric, but Italian news media reports and an American official familiar with the investigation said it was Msgr. Carlo Alberto Capella, who was ordained in Milan in 1993 and entered the diplomatic corps in 2004. He has also worked as a diplomat in Hong Kong and as the Holy See’s liaison to Italy.
Efforts to reach Monsignor Capella through the Vatican on Friday night were unsuccessful.
Details of the case were not disclosed on Friday. The Vatican said the Holy See’s chief prosecutor, the promoter of justice of the Vatican Tribunal, had begun investigating and was engaged in an “international collaboration” to obtain evidence.
If warranted, the Vatican said, the priest could be charged under a 2013 law signed by Pope Francis regarding crimes related to child pornography. The law applies to such crimes “even if committed abroad” by “internationally protected” Vatican citizens, and carries a prison sentence of up to 12 years and a fine of up to 250,000 euros for those who are convicted.
The Vatican said it was exercising standard diplomatic practice as a sovereign state. The United States made a similar decision in 2013 when it quickly brought home a diplomat who killed a Kenyan in a car accident. Reached by phone, Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio, or Vatican ambassador, deferred to the statement.
Still, for many Vatican watchers, Friday’s announcement is disappointing evidence of what they see as the pope’s blind spot regarding child sex abuse in the church.
“Not only are we seeing no action, we are seeing actions that are taking us backwards,” said Barbara Dorris, the managing director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. She noted that Francis had promised to cooperate with civil authorities.
A leader of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States also seemed frustrated by the Vatican’s announcement.
“This is a serious issue,” Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement that called for an immediate and transparent investigation in cooperation with law enforcement. “We hope the Holy See will be forthcoming with more details.”
Francis has talked of having “zero tolerance” for offending priests and establishing powerful committees to safeguard children, but he has moved uncharacteristically slowly when it comes to removing the stain of child sex abuse from the church, even some of his supporters have said.
Nine months into his pontificate, he created a commission of outside experts to counsel the church on the protection of children. But the two survivors of sexual abuse on the commission have left amid complaints of slow bureaucracy and broken promises. A new tribunal to discipline bishops who cover up abuse was disbanded because, the pope said, the Vatican already had the necessary offices.
And despite warning signs, Francis brought Cardinal George Pell to the Vatican as one of its top officials despite long-swirling accusations that the cleric had abused or covered up the abuse of minors. In June, the Vatican announced that Francis had granted Cardinal Pell a leave of absence to face charges of sexual assault against minors in his native Australia, making him the highest-ranking Roman Catholic prelate to be formally charged with such an offense.
Still, the announcement on Friday of the transfer is seen by some analysts as progress, as is a conference to be hosted by the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome to fight “digital sexual child abuse.” Defenders of recalling the priest argue that this is a chance for the Vatican to show that it is willing to get tough on its own citizens.
The Vatican drew criticism in an earlier case involving Jozef Wesolowski, a Polish archbishop who was accused of sexually abusing children in the Dominican Republic, where he served from 2008 to 2013 as the Vatican’s ambassador.
Upon discovering the allegations, the Vatican removed him from the country and invoked his diplomatic immunity to avoid trial in the Dominican Republic, despite that country’s appeals. The Vatican defrocked Mr. Wesolowski in 2014, then sought to try him in Vatican City. Mr. Wesolowski faced eight years in prison if found guilty, but in 2015 he died in his Vatican City residence where he had been placed under house arrest.
Outside St. Peter’s Basilica on Friday, some American Catholics were dismayed that the Vatican had brought back another high-ranking cleric.
Larry Kenny, 70, a retired Catholic grade-school teacher from Milwaukee waiting to visit St. Peter’s, said he wished the Vatican had waived the priest’s immunity so that he could be tried in the United States, where he is accused of committing the offenses.
Mr. Kenny said he admired the progress the pope had made on social justice issues. But when it came to addressing charges of sexual abuse of children, he said, “I would hope Pope Francis would make the church more transparent.”
His wife, Jeannine, 63, agreed. “There should be accountability,” she said.