The Vatican Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue NW in the District. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

U.S. officials found evidence implicating a Vatican diplomat in a child-pornography case, the Vatican said Friday, leading officials in Rome to recall the priest to the Holy See. The case drew attention again to Pope Francis’s efforts to strengthen anti-abuse systems in the church and to debate about how well they’re working.

The Vatican said in a morning news release that the State Department contacted the Vatican’s Secretariat of State on Aug. 21 to report a possible crime involving child pornography. The United States said it was allegedly committed by a member of the diplomatic corps based in Washington.

According to a senior State Department official, the diplomat is a member of the administrative and technical staff who has diplomatic immunity from prosecution for most crimes under the Vienna Convention — like diplomats of all foreign nations. The State Department formally requested that the Vatican waive immunity, but the request was denied, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak more frankly about a criminal probe.

In addition to being the seat of the Catholic Church, the Vatican is also a sovereign nation within the borders of Italy. Pope Francis is both spiritual leader and head of state.

The Vatican recalled the priest-diplomat in question, whom it did not name in its news release, from the District to Vatican City and opened an investigation there. The Holy See said officials are working on collaborating with foreign investigators to gather evidence in the case.

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a U.S. Jesuit and columnist with the Religion News Service, said the person would be dealt with at the Vatican under two systems: church law, which could result in him losing his status as a member of the clergy if he is found guilty, as well as under Vatican civil law if he committed a crime.

Vatican criminal law deems that possession of child pornography is punishable with up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $12,000. Producing or distributing child pornography is subject to more severe penalties, or if the offender possessed a “considerable quantity” of material.

In 2014, the Vatican ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and is therefore legally obligated to comply with it. Among many other things, the convention bans child pornography.

“In these situations I think of it as good news and bad news,” said Reese, who has written for decades about church power. “The bad news is we have a scandal, but the good news is he got caught. And they’ll have to deal with it. Twenty years ago, this would be put under the rug. Today … that can’t be done.”

According to the Vatican 2017 yearbook, its D.C. embassy has four diplomatic staff. People familiar with the structure of the office say there are another dozen or so local hires. It is led by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, a French priest, who is the nuncio, or ambassador from the Vatican to the United States. Pierre appeared in Newark on Thursday night at a Mass honoring the archbishop there, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, and Tobin’s close relationship to Pope Francis.

The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — the church’s organizing body in the United States — released a statement Friday:

“This is a serious issue. We hope the Holy See will be forthcoming with more details,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop in Galveston-Houston. “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.”

The friction between the Vatican and the State Department comes as the as the position of U.S. ambassador to the Vatican is in flux. Callista Gingrich, the nominee, has not been confirmed yet. Louis L. Bono, who previously served on the National Security Council, is the chargé d’Affaires running the embassy until an ambassador is confirmed.

A leading advocacy group for clergy abuse survivors on Friday called for strong action from Pope Francis.

“The crime of possession of child pornography is not a victimless crime. The children in the photos are being sexually abused. Just because this unnamed diplomat—who is a priest—has been removed to Rome, does not mean that he is still not in possession of pornographic images or may still not pose a threat to children wherever he is stationed,” said Barbara Dorris, managing director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “Pope Francis must move swiftly in two ways. One, he must bring the diplomat back to the United States in order to adhere to his promises of complying with investigations by civil authorities in cases of child sexual abuse. Two, he must command his diplomatic corps to cooperate fully. If he is unable to this, Pope Francis must turn over all evidence to Interpol—not engage in secret trials with unknown outcomes—now that the diplomat has returned to Italy and no longer has immunity.”

The Catholic Church’s extensive efforts to carry out its vow of zero-tolerance on child sexual abuse have been challenged by some very high-level public stumbles. In the summer, Australian police brought criminal charges against Cardinal George Pell, Pope Francis’s finance chief and his handpicked agent of administrative reform, saying he was guilty of multiple counts of sexual assault. Pell denied the charges. He has for many years faced questions about his role in overlooking the country’s staggering scale of sexual abuse, but until July never was directly charged.

While some advocates noted that the Vatican didn’t try to shield Pell in Rome, which is a step forward, they called it depressing that civil Australian authorities were the reason Pell was removed from his post — if temporarily.

The Catholic Church in some countries, particularly the United States, has laid out elaborate safeguards and screening systems to protect children from abuse and spent many millions on such systems, but how closely dioceses and religious orders adhere to them isn’t fully known.

Pope Francis created an ambitious reform commission, but one of the two survivors of clergy sex abuse serving on the body quit in March out of frustration.

“The pope certainly does understand the effects of abuse, the horrible damage it does to victims, and he has made an effort. But on the other hand, we haven’t seen an enormous amount of change,” Marie Collins, an Irish survivor of clergy sexual abuse, told The Washington Post earlier this year. “I was more hopeful a few years ago than I was now, because I’ve seen close up how difficult it is to get change. It can’t all be laid at the feet of Pope Francis.”

Stefano Pitrelli in Rome and Michael Birnbaum in Brussels contributed to this report.

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