VATICAN CITY—The Vatican on Friday opened the trial of a former Washington-based diplomat who was recalled last year to this city-state and indicted on charges of possessing and sharing child pornography.
The trial of Monsignor Carlo Capella marks a major test of how the Vatican’s justice system, under a reformist pontiff, will address one aspect of the abuse that has deeply scarred the Catholic Church.
A small pool of reporters was allowed to attend the trial as it began, but by late afternoon, no information about the proceedings had emerged.
Capella, who had been stationed in the Holy See’s Washington Embassy until last year, has been held recently in a cell in the Vatican’s police barracks. The Vatican, accused for years by critics of shielding alleged perpetrators from harsh punishment, took the step last year of recalling Capella from Washington — rebuffing a request from the United States to drop diplomatic immunity for Capella and have him prosecuted in a U.S. court. When the Vatican finished an investigation several weeks ago, it said in a brief statement that the evidence against Capella was “sufficient” to move to trial.
The charges Capella faces represent just one aspect of the varied abuse cases that have ensnared the church, and that have recently prompted notable gestures from Pope Francis. Two months ago, the pope apologized for his own “serious errors” in handling large-scale abuse in Chile; he later spoke of a “culture of abuse and coverup,” which some Vatican watchers described as an unprecedented papal reference to the church’s systemic problems.
The Vatican has said Capella’s case falls under its jurisdiction because he is a Holy See public official, “albeit abroad.” When the Vatican recalled the priest-diplomat last year, it did not name him in the short news release it issued. At the time, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, called it a “serious issue” and asked for a “transparent investigation.”
The State Department had notified the Vatican in August that it suspected one of its diplomats of a possible crime “related to child pornography images.” Canadian police also issued an arrest warrant for Capella, accusing him of uploading child pornography to a social network while he was visiting the country in 2016.
According to Vatican code, distributing or disseminating child pornography can be punished by up to five years of imprisonment and fines reaching 10,000 euro. Penalties can be increased, the code says, “if a considerable quantity of pornographic material” is involved.
Capella was born in the northern Italian town of Carpi and was ordained a priest in 1993, according to media reports. He joined the Vatican’s diplomatic corps in 2004, and served in India and Hong Kong.
Major trials have been rare in the Vatican, largely because it has so few citizens, but in 2013, Pope Francis established that the city-state’s court should have jurisdiction over Holy See diplomats. The closest precedent for the Capella case came when a Polish archbishop, Jozef Wesolowski, was recalled in 2013 from a diplomatic posting in the Dominican Republic amid allegations of child abuse. He was later ordered to stand trial on charges of possessing child pornography, but he died before the trial began.