A Vatican priest working in the Holy See's embassy in Washington has been recalled after U.S. officials flagged possible violations of child pornography laws, the Vatican said on Sept. 15.
In a statement issued to the media, the Vatican press office revealed that the U.S. State Department had notified the Vatican on Aug. 21 “of a possible violation of laws relating to child pornography images by a member of the diplomatic corps of the Holy See accredited to Washington.”
The Italian news agency ANSA has named the Vatican diplomat as Monsignor Carlo Alberto Capella, 50, who was sent to the nunciature in Washington less than a year ago. A New York Times story confirmed the report.
The Vatican has not identified the diplomat, but said Friday he was currently in Vatican City and that its promoter of justice, an office equivalent to a prosecutor or investigating judge, has opened an investigation into possible violation of U.S. laws relating to child pornography.
Subsequently, it said, “the Promoter of Justice opened an investigation and has already commenced international collaboration to obtain elements relative to the case.” In other words, the Vatican and the U.S. authorities are collaborating on this case.
The Vatican explained that “the Holy See, following the practice of sovereign states, recalled the priest in question.”
The State Department confirmed that it had asked the Vatican to lift the official's diplomatic immunity. It said that request was denied.
In declining to identify the priest, the Vatican said the case was subject to “investigative confidentiality,” as “applicable to all preliminary inquiries according to the laws of the Vatican City State.”
Responding to the news, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said in a statement released to the media: “This is a serious issue. 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 cardinal said. “The protection of children and young people is our most sacred responsibility.”
Msgr. Capella was born in the Emiglia-Romagna region of northern Italy, and ordained for the archdiocese of Milan in 1993. After taking a degree in Canon Law, he entered the Vatican’s academy for diplomats, and in 2004 entered the Holy See’s diplomatic service.
He was first appointed to India, but in 2007 he was transferred to Hong Kong as a member of the Holy See’s “Study Mission,” which closely monitors the situation of the church in China. He was recalled to the Vatican Secretariat of State in 2011 as desk officer for relations with states, and played a special role in the relations with Italy, before being assigned to the nunciature in Washington.
ANSA reports that Msgr. Capella is living inside the Vatican in the College of the Penitentiaries (Collegio dei Penitenzieri), which is the building that also houses the Vatican tribunal.
The priest-diplomat is being investigated by the promoter of justice of the Vatican City State. This means he is being investigated for alleged crimes under the revised Vatican penal code that was promulgated by Pope Francis on July 11, 2013, and, more specifically, under two articles of that code that relate to child pornography: Articles 10 and 11 of Law N.III: Supplementary norms on criminal law matters.
Article 10 deals with child pornography as such, including recruitment for, production of, inducement and trading in it. For this, the Vatican penal code stipulates imprisonment for 6 to 12 years, plus a substantial fine. The law also punishes the distribution, transmission, importation, exportation or sale of child pornography by any means, including electronically, as well as the dissemination of information directed at grooming minors for sexual purposes. The penalty here includes one to five years in prison, plus a hefty fine. The law also imposes a prison sentence on whoever offers, supplies or exhibits child pornography, even free of charge.
Article 11 deals specifically with the possession of child pornography and imposes a prison sentence of up to two years, plus a fine, for anyone who obtains or intentionally possesses child pornography.
Both articles call for heavier penalties depending on the amount of pornography in question.
Apart from the Vatican City State process, the accused priest, as a cleric, could also be subject to a canonical process conducted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith relating to “the most serious delicts.” This process was promulgated by Benedict XVI on May 21, 2010, having revised and updated the earlier norms issued by St. John Paul II in 2001, as the motu proprio, known by its Latin title, “Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela.”
Article 6, Sections 1 and 2, of these revised norms deal specifically with pornography. Paragraph 2 of Section 1 considers as “a most serious delict,” or crime, “the acquisition, possession, or distribution by a cleric of pornographic images of minors under the age of fourteen, for purposes of sexual gratification, by whatever means or using whatever technology.” Section 2 declares that a cleric who commits the above mentioned delicts “is to be punished according to the gravity of his crime, not excluding dismissal or deposition.”
This is not the first time that a member of the Holy See’s diplomatic corps has been recalled to the Vatican, citing diplomatic immunity, and subjected to an investigation for the alleged commission of crimes under the Vatican City State’s penal code and for alleged commission of “the most serious delicts.”
In August 2013, the Vatican recalled its nuncio to the Dominican Republic, the Polish Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, who was accused of paying children for sexual acts. He was investigated and subjected to a judicial process in the Vatican for the abuse of children and was removed from the clerical ministry. He was also sent to trial for the possession of child pornography but died from natural causes in August 2015, while under house arrest in the Vatican, before the trial could take place.
Like the Polish archbishop, the priest-diplomat now under investigation is also subject to double jurisdiction—in the latter case the jurisdiction of the Vatican City State and the United States. In both cases, the diplomat’s state has priority in terms of jurisdiction.
This story contains reporting from America’s Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, as well as the Associated Press. It includes updates.