The Vatican has announced the arrest of a diplomat accused in a U.S.-Canada-Vatican investigation of child pornography.
The Vatican on Saturday said Monsignor Carlo Capella was being held in gendarmerie barracks inside the Vatican, and that his arrest follows a Vatican investigation.
Capella was recalled from the United States by the Vatican secretary of state last year after being caught up in a three-nation investigation into child porn. Police in Windsor, Ontario said Capella allegedly uploaded child porn from a social networking site while visiting a place of worship from Dec. 24-27, 2016
The Vatican recalled Capella after the U.S. State Department notified it on Aug. 21 of a “possible violation of laws relating to child pornography images” by one of its diplomats in Washington.
For a church hierarchy excoriated for decades over the sexual abuse of children in its trust, hosting a conference this week about the spreading scourge of online child pornography was an opportunity to strike a positive note about the Vatican’s role in protecting minors.
“Yes, yes, yes,” said Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, when asked Tuesday night at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome if the Catholic Church could lead a global response to the problem.
It was just the latest of the abuse accusations against priests that have dogged the church around the globe for decades even as it has promised to punish predators and protect the preyed upon. Advocates for the victims have questioned the church’s commitment.
Last week, as organizers prepared for the congress — with its keynote address by Cardinal Parolin, the second-highest-ranking official after Pope Francis; blanket coverage by the church’s news media; and a papal audience with Francis on Friday — the Canadian police issued an arrest warrant for Monsignor Capella. He was accused of distributing child pornography during a Christmas visit in 2016 to Ontario.
Cardinal Parolin, speaking to reporters on Tuesday before his address, called the case a “very painful affair, a great trial for all those who are involved.” He said the priest’s case was being handled with the “utmost seriousness.” The Vatican has also said that the Holy See’s chief prosecutor was investigating and that if the monsignor was tried and convicted, he could be sentenced up to 12 years in a Vatican jail.
The Vatican has done much to address child abuse by clergy members, which has threatened to stain the entire church. (Pope Benedict XVI once memorably called it “filth.”) It has removed abusive priests, worked more closely with local law enforcement officials, toughened its laws and generally adopted a “zero tolerance” approach.
But advocates for victims have argued that the Vatican’s invocation of diplomatic immunity to recall the Italian monsignor from the United States shows that it still prioritizes protecting its own.
In his speech before top Italian officials and representatives from Interpol, the United Nations, Russia, China, the United States, Facebook and Microsoft, Cardinal Parolin spoke at length about the growing threat of internet abuse on the spirit and psyches of young users. He acknowledged that when it came to the exploitation and abuse of children, “over the past few decades, this tragic reality has come powerfully to the fore in the Catholic Church, and extremely grave facts have emerged.”
Last month, Francis said in unscripted remarks to a commission he had created to advise him on the issue that the church had “arrived late” to the crisis. He lamented his leniency, early in his pontificate, toward an Italian priest who subsequently continued his abuse.
“The old practice of moving people around and not confronting the problem made consciences fall asleep,” the pope said. He said he would limit the chances of pedophile priests to appeal their convictions by church tribunals.
But critics say Vatican action has lagged behind the pope’s words. For example, a tribunal to discipline bishops who cover up abuse was disbanded because, the pope said, the Vatican already had the requisite offices to deal with the issue.
A commission Francis created with top cardinals, outside experts and abuse victims (the committee’s only two victims have since left) has seemed stifled by Vatican bureaucracy.
Advocates for abuse victims say they consider the Capella case a shameful echo of an earlier episode involving Josef Wesolowski, a Polish archbishop accused of abusing children in the Dominican Republic, where he served as the Vatican ambassador. The Vatican removed the archbishop and denied appeals that he be tried in the Dominican Republic. He was defrocked and died in the Vatican before facing justice.
The Rev. Hans Zollner, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, said he was confident that this time, the accused cleric would face justice.
“Everyone who commits a crime needs to be punished,” he said. “Period.”
The congress, meanwhile, is seeking ways to protect children in what has been depicted as a frightening digital world, where abusers surf a dark web and child pornography proliferates.
The conference has included top experts in the field speaking about the risks as more children in developing countries go online. They have discussed troubling statistics, such as the finding last year by the Internet Watch Foundation that more than 57,000 websites contained images of children being sexually abused. And they have sat on panels such as one called International Politics and Law Regarding Child Sexual Abuse.
For years, top Vatican officials in Rome had dismissed the abuse crisis as a unique product of the Anglo-Saxon world, and suggested that it had been overplayed by the news media. But organizers of the congress said the majority of the experts came from countries in the global north because that is where the problem has been confronted most aggressively.
In an interview, Father Zollner said that on his global travels looking into the problem, he had observed that bishops and clerics in countries such as Malawi were finally facing an issue they would not talk about as recently as a year ago. But other nations are still constrained by local cultural taboos about discussing child abuse, he said.
Italy, he noted, was not without its own bombshell reports of sexual abuse in the church. He compared the book “Lust,” about abuse in the Vatican, by the investigative journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi, to the breakthrough reports by The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team on the cover-up of priests’ sexual abuse of children.
Father Zollner he said the media focus on Monsignor Capella could have a positive side effect and put “more attention to the topic of the congress,” which, he said, was to better understand the phenomenon of child pornography and how to prevent it.
A Vatican diplomat already under suspicion for child pornography-related offenses in the United States has now been accused of downloading child porn in Canada. Monsignor Carlo Capella was recalled to the Vatican, where an investigation into his alleged crimes has been initiated.
An arrest warrant has been issued in Canada for Monsignor Carlo Capella, the Vatican diplomat recalled from service in Washington in late August, who already was the subject of a Vatican criminal investigation involving child pornography.
Police in Windsor, Ontario, issued a statement Sept. 28 saying, “A Canada-wide arrest warrant has been issued for Carlo Capella, a 50-year-old male, for the charges of: access(ing) child pornography, possess(ing) child pornography and distribut(ing) child pornography.
“Investigators believe that the offenses occurred while the suspect was visiting a place of worship in Windsor,” the statement said. “Investigators have determined that the suspect has returned to his residence in Italy.”
Capella had worked since the summer of 2016 at the Vatican nunciature in Washington. Prior to that, he worked on the Italy desk at the Vatican Secretariat of State. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1993 for the Archdiocese of Milan.
Although the Vatican has not publicly confirmed Capella’s identity, it did not object when many news outlets identified him as the Vatican diplomat recalled from Washington.
“The Holy See, following the practice of sovereign states, recalled the priest in question, who is currently in Vatican City,” the press office said.
The Associated Press reported that the State Department confirmed it had asked the Vatican to lift the official’s diplomatic immunity. It said that request was denied.
The Vatican promoter of justice, the chief prosecutor for Vatican City State, “opened an investigation and has already commenced international collaboration to obtain elements relative to the case,” the Vatican said.
The Vatican press office declined to comment on the Windsor police statement.
The statement said that “in February of 2017, the Windsor Police Service Internet Child Exploitation Unit received information that originated from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police National Child Exploitation Coordination Center indicating that a suspect in the city of Windsor had allegedly uploaded child pornography using a social networking website.”
The Windsor police launched an investigation and “were granted judicial permission to review records related to the involved internet service provider address,” the statement said. The investigation “determined that the alleged offenses occurred between Dec. 24-27, 2016,” at a Windsor church.
Canada’s CBC News quoted a spokesman for the Diocese of London, which includes Windsor, confirming “that it was asked to, and did, assist in an investigation around suspicions involving Monsignor Capella’s possible violations of child pornography laws by using a computer address at a local church.”
Nelson Couto, diocesan spokesman, said that at the request of police, the diocese would not comment further.
Pope Francis acknowledged that the Catholic Church was slow to address the sex abuse crisis, including its widely criticized but not publicly acknowledged practice of moving priests who had abused children to other churches instead of reporting them to the police, saying “the church’s conscience came a bit late.”
The pope gave off-the-cuff remarks to a commission he created to tackle the issue, acknowledging the slow pace of church trials and an overall lack of awareness of the problem inside St. Peter’s walls.
“Pedophilia is a sickness,” Pope Francis said. “Today one repents, moves on, we forgive him, then two years later he relapses. We need to get it in our heads that it’s a sickness.”
The pope announced he would do away with Vatican appeal trials for cases where evidence of abuse against minors is proven. “If there’s evidence, that is final,” he said.
“Those who’re sentenced because of sexual abuses against minors can indeed appeal to the pope and ask for a pardon, but I’ve never signed one of those, and I never will,” he said. “I hope this much is clear.”
The pope’s rationale for doing away with an appeal process — according to Italian news outlets’ transcripts of his words — lies in his own experience. Faced with such a case at the very beginning of his papacy, he said he’d opted for “the more benevolent path” instead of defrocking a priest. “After two years, though, the priest relapsed,” he said, which became a learning experience for the pope.
A well-placed Vatican source confirms that these words convey the pope’s own “personal bitterness, as well as the difficulty of curing [pedophiles], as it was once thought possible, which instead ended up being quite a failure.” According to the source, the pope was probably specifically referring to the case of Mauro Inzoli, whom he “definitively” defrocked earlier this summer. An appeal trial for Inzoli, who was convicted of child sex abuse in an Italian court, began Thursday.
The pope’s comments and recent events draw attention to his larger efforts to strengthen the church’s fight against abuse, as advocacy groups have called for sweeping changes within the Vatican hierarchy.
Last week, the Catholic Church recalled diplomat Monsignor Carlo Alberto Capella back to the Vatican because U.S. investigators suspected him of crimes involving child pornography.
And earlier this year, Cardinal George Pell, one of the most powerful officials in the Vatican, was charged by Australian police for “historical sexual assault offenses,” and returned to his home country “to clear his name,” according to a statement from the archdiocese of Sydney.
The Catholic Church in some countries, including in the United States, put systems in place to protect children, and after he became pope, Francis created an ambitious reform commission addressing sex abuse.
He appointed Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who inherited the clergy abuse scandal from Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston, as president of the commission, calling him one of the church’s “prophets.”
Marie Collins, an Irish survivor of clergy sexual abuse, quit Francis’s commission in March because she thought that few of the changes they recommended were being implemented by the Vatican hierarchy. She said that when the pope makes a statement like this, it helps to break down denial from many church leaders.
“I suppose [Pope Francis is] stating what is obvious,” Collins said. Since the beginning of his papacy, Francis has spoken of the horrors of abuse and spoken to survivors of abuse, asking for forgiveness several times.
However, Collins believes this may be the first time the pope has addressed how the church handles priests. Some bishops would move priests accused of abusing children to other churches, allowing them to continue their abuse.
“We’re getting an admission of problems that were there,” she said. “The less denial there is, the more chance there is for change.”
Francesco Zanardi, an Italian survivor of clergy sex abuse, said he believes it’s the first time the pope has acknowledged the practice of moving priests around.
“It’s an admission all right, but it comes a bit too late, I just can’t be optimistic about it,” said Zanardi, president of “Rete l’Abuso” or Abuse Network, an Italian association of’ survivors of abuse by clergy.
Many people are beginning to wonder whether the pope’s rhetoric will turn into Vatican action, such as the idea of tribunals, said John Thavis, author of “The Vatican Diaries” and who was a longtime correspondent for the Catholic News Service.
“The question is whether he institutionalizes some forms of closer control over bishops who have made bad decisions,” he said. “That seems to be a sticking point.”
The pope’s defenders say he has made strides to hold bishops and priests accountable. Last summer, Francis issued a decree that diocesan bishops could be removed for failure to report suspected abuse. In 2014, he fired a bishop in Paraguay who was accused of covering up abuse, and in 2015, he accepted the resignation of a bishop in Kansas City who was convicted of covering up abuse.
As sexual assault cases against the Archdiocese of Agana continue to increase, it appears that the Vatican has found itself in trouble with the United Nations.
Three years ago, the Vatican was called to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child which begged the Vatican to take concrete steps to remedy decades of institutional complicity and cover-up of widespread sexual violence.
September 1, 2017 marked the deadline for the Vatican to submit a comprehensive report on their progress, but the Vatican did not submit the report.
According to the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Holy See was provided with committee recommendations aimed at ensuring the protection of children from sexual violence, however the Vatican has not implemented any of those recommendations.
“And children remain at risk while Vatican officials engage in power struggles, finger pointing and deflection,” stated SNAP managing Director Barbara Dorris.
While CCR staff attorney Pam Spees stated, “Church officials are quick to decry efforts to hold them accountable as scapegoating or anti-Catholic sentiment and deflect by pointing to instances of sexual violence in other religious contexts.”
Both SNAP and CCR in a report to the UN argue “that the Holy See has not made substantial progress in genuinely acknowledging, internalizing and implements the full range of policies and practices that would center children’s best interest and protect them against sexual violence.”