Updated September 25 at 1:30 p.m. EST
The Holy See announced on Friday that a priest who is part of its diplomatic corps has been recalled to Rome following allegations that he violated child-pornography laws. The official had been accredited to serve in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Department of State notified Catholic Church leaders about the alleged crime through diplomatic channels. The Vatican has opened an investigation and is keeping the name of the accused priest confidential. The AP reported that the U.S. government requested that the official’s diplomatic immunity be lifted. The request was denied.
These allegations have come at a turbulent time for the Vatican on issues of sex abuse. Earlier this summer, Cardinal George Pell was charged with multiple sex crimes by the Australian police, and returned to his home country “to clear his name,” according to a statement from the archdiocese of Sydney. Pell has been in charge of the Vatican’s treasury since 2014, and was specifically brought in to implement reforms.
Pope Francis has faced intense criticism for his handling of child sex-abuse issues. Although he convened a special body called the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to review Church policies on sex-abuse allegations, two high-profile members have left. One of them, Marie Collins, is herself a survivor of abuse. She cited a “lack of resources, inadequate structures around support staff, slowness of forward movement, and cultural resistance” as her reasons for quitting, and she criticized members of the Curia, who govern the Vatican, for blocking reform efforts. Another member—Peter Saunders, who is also a survivor of abuse—said he was disappointed that Pope Francis had not visited the commission. He has been placed on indefinite leave from the commission.
As John Thavis, a veteran Vatican reporter, told me earlier this summer following the charges against Cardinal Pell, accusations of sex-abuse against high-ranking officials could significantly damage any hope of reform. “On the surface, it hurts the pope’s efforts to move forcefully against clerical sexual abuse simply because it undermines public trust in the Vatican,” he said. “We don’t know if [Pell] is guilty of these particular accusations. But enormous mistakes were made in handling sex-abuse cases.”
This summer, an extraordinary case has also been playing out in Guam, where roughly 100 lawsuits have been filed by victims who allege widespread sexual abuse by Catholic leaders on the island in the 1980s. Anthony Apuron, the suspended archbishop in Guam, is one of the alleged abusers.* The Pacific Daily News reported that Apuron “is among the highest-ranking church officials to be tried by the Vatican for sexual wrongdoings.” (Through his lawyer, Apuron stated that he “asserts his innocence as well as the necessity of due process for both priest and complainant alike.”)
In the Guam case, the Vatican has led the way on investigating and trying alleged abusers. But in Pell’s case, and now in the case of the Vatican diplomat accused of violating U.S. child-pornography laws, outside authorities have initiated the charges. This could once again put the Church in a position it’s struggled with ever since the priest sex-abuse scandal widely broke in the early 2000s: appearing to be passive in the face of terrible allegations.
“In the end, what Pope Francis does institutionally will be the key to judging his performance,” Thavis said.
* This article has been updated to clarify that Anthony Apuron has been suspended from his duties as the archbishop of Agaña, although he still technically holds the position.