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Vatican Recalls Priest at Washington Embassy Amid Child Porn Investigation

VATICAN CITY — A high-ranking priest working in the Vatican's embassy in Washington has been recalled after U.S. prosecutors asked for him to be charged there and face trial in a child pornography investigation, Vatican and U.S. officials said Friday.

The Vatican declined to identify the priest, but said he was currently in Vatican City and that Vatican prosecutors had launched their own probe.

If the accusations pan out, the case would be a major embarrassment for the Vatican and Pope Francis, who has pledged "zero tolerance" for sexual abuse.

Pope meets with Catholic priest abuse victims 2:04

The diplomat would be the second from the Vatican's diplomatic corps to face possible criminal charges for such crimes during Francis' papacy. Any trial in the Vatican would come as Francis' own financial czar, Cardinal George Pell, is on trial in his native Australia for alleged historic sex abuse cases.

Related: Archbishop Says Church of England Hid Decades of Sex Abuse

The State Department said it had asked the Vatican to lift the official's diplomatic immunity on Aug. 21. It said that request was denied three days later. For the State Department to make such a request, its lawyers would have needed to be convinced that there was reasonable cause for criminal prosecution.

An exterior view of the Vatican embassy is seen in Washington
The Vatican embassy in Washington. Yuri Gripas / Reuters file

The circumstances that prompted prosecutors to make the request, however, weren't clear. The Justice Department, which would have brought any charges, did not immediately comment.

In a statement, the Vatican said the U.S. State Department had notified the Vatican on Aug. 21 of a "possible violation of laws relating to child pornography images" by one of its diplomats in Washington.

Related: Cardinal George Pell Appears in Australian Court for Sex Abuse Hearing

The Vatican said recalling the priest was consistent with diplomatic practice of sovereign states. In declining to identify him, the Vatican said the case was subject to confidentiality while still under investigation. It said the Vatican had asked for information about the case from the U.S; it wasn't clear if any had been provided.

The Vatican has recalled envoys before — including its former ambassador to the Dominican Republic, who was recalled in 2013 after being accused of sexually abusing young boys on the Caribbean island.