The first ever trial of a former papal official accused of paedophile crimes opens Saturday at the Vatican in what is viewed as belated Church efforts to battle child abusers among the clergy.
The unprecedented trial will hear the case of former Polish archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, who is accused of possessing child pornography in Rome in 2013-14, and the sexual abuse of minors during his 2008-13 stint as the Vatican nuncio, or ambassador, in the Dominican Republic.
Wesolowski, 66, was secretly recalled from his posting in 2012 after the Church hierarchy was informed that he was regularly paying young Dominican boys for sexual services.
He was defrocked by a Church court in June 2014 but remained free until September of that year, when he was placed under house arrest -- reportedly for reasons of failing health -- under an order the Vatican said came directly from Pope Francis.
His trial marks the first legal proceedings against a church official under a Vatican justice system update by Francis in response to accusations of sexual abuse of children by priests that have multiplied as thousands of victims have spoken out around the world.
If Wesolowski is convicted in the trial, in which the judge, defence lawyer and prosecutors are all Italian lay people, he could face a six-year prison sentence -- more if aggravated circumstances are found -- which he could serve in Vatican detention facilities.
- Test case -
He is seen as a test case in Francis's push to take a more active role in prosecuting predators in the face of accusations from abuse victims, their families and supporters that the Catholic Church has not done enough to identify and punish paedophiles in its midst.
"The (pornography) case is based on an offence introduced to Vatican legislation by Francis in 2013. The other involves sexual abuse of minors prosecuted on the case assembled by legal authorities of Santo Domingo," the Vatican said in a statement ahead of the trial.
"These serious allegations will be scrutinised by the competent judicial body, which will be assisted by both technical appraisals of the IT systems used by the defendant and, if necessary, international legal cooperation for the evaluation of testimonial evidence from the competent authorities in Santo Domingo," it said.
According to the Italian-language weekly Panorama, the tribunal may request testimony from Dominican deacon Francisco Javier Occi Reyes, who was arrested in Santo Domingo accused of having put Wesolowski in contact with minors.
The first day of the proceedings will be open to the public, and the trial is then expected to recess before reconvening in September. At that time Wesolowski's lawyers may motion for it to continue in closed session.
While the case marks the first time a Vatican court will hear child sexual abuse charges against a former Church official, it is not the first time its legal process has been used to hear charges of alleged wrong-doing.
In 2012 the Vatican tribunal drew world-wide attention when it heard a case against Paolo Gabriele, Pope Benedict's former personal butler, for accusations he leaked secret documents to the press.