Vatican recalls Washington diplomat amid child pornography investigation

VATICAN CITY, Sept 15 (Reuters) - A Vatican diplomat working in Washington has been recalled to the Holy See after the U.S. State Department said the priest may have violated child pornography laws, the Vatican said on Friday.

Prosecutors in the Vatican have opened an investigation into the case, which represents a fresh blow to the Roman Catholic Church as it struggles to overcome repeated sex abuse scandals among its clergy.

The State Department notified the Holy See in August "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 Vatican statement said.

RELATED: Sexual crimes, abuse continue to plague Vatican

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Cardinal George Pell, Vatican abuse, sex crimes
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Cardinal George Pell, Vatican abuse, sex crimes
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - OCTOBER 04: Australian cardinal George Pell attends a mass for the opening of the Synod on the themes of family held by Pope Francis at St. Peter's Basilica on October 4, 2015 in Vatican City, Vatican. The director of the Holy See press office Father Federico Lombardi on Saturday reacting to revelations by a high-ranking Vatican official that he is in a gay relationship said 'the decision to make such a pointed statement on the eve of the opening of the Synod appears very serious and irresponsible, since it aims to subject the Synod assembly to undue media pressure'. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - OCTOBER 20: Pope Francis greets Australian Cardinal George Pell as he arrives at the Synod Hall for a session of Synod on The Themes Of Family on October 20, 2015 in Vatican City, Vatican. The Synod of Bishops on the family moves into its third and final week. Over the first two weeks the Church leaders have been seeking to resolve tensions between the different visions of family life and ministry. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA: (FILES) Cardinal George Pell, Sydney Archbishop and the head of the Catholic Church in Australia, holds court at St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, 03 June 2002. The conservative Pell has emerged as a candidate to succeed Pope John Paul II. AFP PHOTO/Torsten BLACKWOOD (Photo credit should read TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
(AUSTRALIA OUT) File photo dated 11 May 2003 of Archbishop George Pell holding mass at St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney who was one of 31 new cardinals named by the Vatican on 28 September 2003. Pell, age 62, has made headlines in Australia for refusing communion to gays, for opposing women priests, for saying homosexuality was a bigger health hazard than smoking and that abortion was a worse moral scandal than sexual abuse by priests. AFP PHOTO/FAIRFAX/Robert PEARCE (Photo credit should read ROBERT PEARCE/AFP/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, Vatican: Newly appointed cardinal George Pell of Australia kisses Pope John Paul II's hand on St Peter square 21 October 2003 at the Vatican during the ordination ceremony of new cardinals. The 30 cardinals appointed today will bring the Consistory to 135 cardinal-electors who will meet in conclave to elect a next Pope after his death. AFP PHOTO PAOLO COCCO (Photo credit should read PAOLO COCCO/AFP/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA: (FILES) Cardinal George Pell, Sydney Archbishop and the head of the Catholic Church in Australia, talks to the media outside St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, 01 April 2004. The conservative Pell has emerged as a candidate to succeed Pope John Paul II. AFP PHOTO/Torsten BLACKWOOD (Photo credit should read TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY - OCTOBER 25: Archbishop of Sydney Cardinal George Pell (L) and the personal secretary of Pope Benedict XVI Georg Ganswein (R) attend the weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square October 25, 2006 in Vatican City. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
Cardinal George Pell conducts the opening mass of World Youth Day (WYD), in Sydney on July 15, 2008. Pope Benedict XVI who did not attend this mass as he rests, is to lead the six-day celebration starting today for the event which is expected to attract up to 125,000 international visitors and that will culminate in a papal mass before an estimated 500,000 people in Sydney July 20. AFP PHOTO/William WEST (Photo credit should read WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 15: In this handout photo provided by World Youth Day, His Eminence Cardinal George Pell, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney arrives for the Opening Mass of Welcome of World Youth Day Sydney 2008 at Barangaroo on July 15, 2008 in Sydney, Australia. Organised every two to three years by the Catholic Church, World Youth Day (WYD) is an invitation from the Pope to the youth of the world to celebrate their faith. The celebration, being held in Sydney from July 15, 2008 to July 20, 2008, will mark the first visit of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to Australia. (Photo by World Youth Day via Getty Images)
Cardinal George Pell, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, unveils Australia's first pure gold (L) and silver (R) coins commemorating the canonisation of Mary MacKillop in Sydney on September 30, 2010. MacKillop is set to become Australia's first saint when she is canonised by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome on October 17, 101 years after her death. Only 7,500 silver coins will be issued by The Perth Mint, while the stricter mintage of 2,010 gold coins recognises the year in which she became a saint. AFP PHOTO / Torsten BLACKWOOD (Photo credit should read TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
Sydney Archbishop Cardinal George Pell speaks to the media during a press conference in Sydney on November 13, 2012. The Catholic Church should not be the scapegoat in an Australian inquiry into child sex abuse, the country's most senior Catholic cleric said November 13 as he accused the press of a persistent campaign. AFP PHOTO/ROSLAN RAHMAN (Photo credit should read ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 26: Cardinal George Pell arrives for his appearance at the Royal Commission on March 26, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. Cardinal Pell is facing the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Sydney to answer questions about whether he was involved in compensation discussions related to the case of John Ellis who was sexually abused by Father Aidan Duggan.Cardinal Pell will soon move to Rome to undertake a senior role at the Vatican. (Photo by Don Arnold/Getty Images)
Australian Cardinal George Pell, Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy of the Holy See, attends a press conference on March 31, 2014 in Vatican. Cardinal George Pell and Italian writer Francesco Lozupone presented the book 'Co-responsability and transparency in the administration of church property'. AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters hold placards outside the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Sydney on February 29, 2016, as Australia's Cardinal George Pell gave evidence via video-link from a hotel in Rome to the Royal Commission rather than appearing in person as he has a heart condition. Vatican finance chief Cardinal George Pell admitted on February 29 the Catholic Church 'mucked up' in dealing with paedophile priests and vowed he would not 'defend the indefensible' before an Australian inquiry. AFP PHOTO / WIlliam WEST / AFP / WILLIAM WEST (Photo credit should read WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)
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A State Department spokesman said the United States had requested that the man's diplomatic immunity be waived to open the way for possible prosecution, but the Vatican refused.

The priest, who was not named, has returned to Vatican City and is awaiting the outcome of the Holy See investigation, which could lead to a trial in the tiny city state.

The U.S.-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said possession of child pornography was not a victimless crime because the children involved were being abused.

"(Pope Francis) 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," SNAP managing director Barbara Dorris said.

Pope Francis has declared zero tolerance over abuse scandals that have beset the Church for decades, but has appeared to struggle to overcome resistance within the Vatican hierarchy.

The State Department spokesman said the pope had promised to "act decisively with regard to cases of sexual abuse" and punish those found guilty of wrongdoing.

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"The United States encourages the Holy See to ensure full implementation of its reforms and policies designed to protect minors and provide justice regarding allegations," the spokesman said.

Two years ago the Vatican put the former papal ambassador to the Dominican Republic on trial for child sex offenses, a case that was seen as showing the pope's determination to clean up the Church.

The priest, Jozef Wesolowski, was charged with paying boys to perform sexual acts, of downloading and buying pedophile material. He died before a verdict was reached.

He was the first high-ranking Catholic official to stand trial in the Vatican on such sex charges and the case was closely watched by victims of priestly abuse, who have accused the Vatican of repeatedly hushing up previous scandals.

Earlier this year, Cardinal George Pell, a top adviser to Pope Francis, was charged with multiple historical sex crimes in his native Australia. The highest-ranking Church official to face such accusations, Pell has denied any wrongdoing.

Just last month, in the foreword to a new book written by a Swiss man who was raped by a priest when he was eight years old, Pope Francis said sexual abuse of children by priests was a "monstrosity" and pledged to take action against perpetrators. (Additional reporting by Steve Scherer in Rome and David Alexander in Washington; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

RELATED: A look inside the Vatican

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The Vatican
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The Vatican
ROME - OCTOBER 23: The picture shows an aerial view of St. Peter's Basilica, the Vatican walls and gardens on October 23, 2007 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: St Peter's Basilica, Rome, and the elliptical piazza and colonnades designed by Bernini (1598-1680). From Nouveau Voyage d'Italie, 1702. Copperplate engraving. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - MARCH 04: A cardinal arrives at the Paul VI hall for the opening of the Cardinals' Congregations on March 4, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. The congregations of cardinals will continue until all cardinal electors have arrived in Rome, whereupon the College will decide on the start-date of the Conclave to elect a new Pope. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - APRIL 24: A general view of St. Peter's Square during the Easter Mass held by Pope Benedict XVI on April 24, 2011 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
This picture shows the headquarters of the Institute for Religious Works (IOR) the Vatican's bank on February 18, 2012 at The Vatican. erman financier Ernst von Freyberg was named the new president of the Vatican bank on February 15, ending a long vacancy after his predecessor at the secretive institution was unceremoniously sacked. AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Franciswalks to the altar during his grandiose inauguration mass on March 19, 2013 at St Peter's square at the Vatican. Pope Francis swept into St Peter's Square on Tuesday to greet throngs of pilgrims before a sumptuous ceremony in which Latin America's first pontiff will receive the formal symbols of papal power. AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
A seagull flies in front of St Peter's basilica on January 22, 2013 in Rome. AFP PHOTO / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - DECEMBER 25: Pope Francis delivers his Christmas Day message from the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica on December 25, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. The 'Urbi et Orbi' blessing (to the city and to the world) is recognised as a Christmas tradition by Catholics with the Pope Francis focusing this year on the peace in the world. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
St Peter's Square, Rome, 20th century. Saint Peter's Square, or Saint Peter's Piazza, is located directly in front of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, the papal enclave withiin Rome. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - APRIL 20: People gather as Pope Francis holds Easter Mass in St. Peter's Square on April 20, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. Pope Francis is attending the Holy Week for his second time as a Pontiff. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
A picture taken on December 4, 2014 at sunrise shows the St Peter's basilica in Vatican. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis greets the crowd from the popemobile during his weekly general audience on December 3, 2014 at the Vatican. Photo Credit: Gabriel Bouys, APF/Getty Images
Pope Francis waves at the end of a meeting with the Pauline family (Paolina family) in occasion of the centenary of its foundation by Don Giacomo Alberione, on Novembre 27, 2014 at Paul VI audience hall at the Vatican. Pope Francis heads to Turkey on Friday, it will be the first papal visit to Turkey since the now-retired Benedict XVI went there in 2006 against a backrop of anger in much of the Muslim world over comments which appeared to link the Prophet Mohamed to violence. AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - NOVEMBER 26: Pilgrims leave the St. Peter's square at the end of Pope Francis' general audience on November 26, 2014 in Vatican City. (Photo by Baris Seckin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - NOVEMBER 23: Pope Francis waves as he leaves St. Peters Square at the end of a canonization mass on November 23, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. Pontiff canonized six new saints two from Kerala (India) Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Mother Eufrasia Eluvathingal, and four Italians: Amato Ronconi, Giovanni Antonio Farina, Nicola da Longobardi and Ludovico da Casoria. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - NOVEMBER 23: A general view of a canonization mass celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peters Square on November 23, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. Pontiff canonized six new saints two from Kerala (India) Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Mother Eufrasia Eluvathingal, and four Italians: Amato Ronconi, Giovanni Antonio Farina, Nicola da Longobardi and Ludovico da Casoria. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - NOVEMBER 23: Pope Francis waves as he leaves St. Peters Square at the end of a canonization mass on November 23, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. Pontiff canonized six new saints two from Kerala (India) Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Mother Eufrasia Eluvathingal, and four Italians: Amato Ronconi, Giovanni Antonio Farina, Nicola da Longobardi and Ludovico da Casoria. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - OCTOBER 06: Australian Cardinal George Pell arrives at the Synod Hall for the opening of the Synod on the themes of family on October 6, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. The two week General Assembly will discuss the 'The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of the Evangelization'. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - JUNE 29: Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell (C) attends the mass and imposition of the Pallium upon the new metropolitan archbishops held by Pope Francis for the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Paul at Vatican Basilica on June 29, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. Pope Francis delivered the homily at Mass in St Peter's Basilica on Saturday morning, to mark the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles and Patrons fo the city of Rome. In his remarks following the Gospel reading, the Holy Father focused on a particular task of the Petrine ministry, which is to strengthen, or confirm, all the faithful. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
Interior of the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome', 1750s. Panini, Giovanni Paolo (1691-1765). Italy, Roman School. Found in the collection of the State Hermitage, St. Petersburg. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - MARCH 19: Pope Francis during his Inauguration Mass on March 19, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. The inauguration of Pope Francis is being held in front of an expected crowd of up to one million pilgrims and faithful who have crowded into St Peter's Square and the surrounding streets to see the former Cardinal of Buenos Aires officially take up his position. Pope Francis' inauguration takes place in front his cardinals, spiritual leaders as well as heads of states from around the world and he will now lead an estimated 1.3 billion Catholics. (Photo by Europa Press/Europa Press via Getty Images)
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