A former Vatican ambassador has been placed under house arrest and will face a criminal trial on child sex charges, the Holy See said on Tuesday night.
The action against Józef Wesołowski, 66, is the first time that the Vatican has charged a high-ranking official with paedophilia. If found guilty he could face up to 12 years in prison.
The Polish-born cleric was recalled from the Dominican Republic in August 2013 after the archbishop of Santo Domingo told Pope Francis about rumours that Wesołowski had sexually abused teenage boys in the Caribbean country. Prosecutors there say he allegedly paid boys as young as 13 to masturbate.
In June a Vatican tribunal found Wesołowski guilty of abuse and imposed its toughest penalty under church law: laicisation, or returning to life as a layman.
Being defrocked meant that he lost his diplomatic immunity and the Dominican Republic has opened an investigation into accusations that he paid boys to perform sexual acts.
The Vatican had been criticised for protecting Wesołowski from legal action by the Dominican authorities by recalling him last year.
The case has also been a test of whether Francis is willing to prosecute a crime that the Vatican has long sought to blame on priests, rather than direct representatives of the pope himself.
The Vatican said the arrest reflected the wishes of the Pope that “such a grave and delicate case be handled without delay, with the just and necessary rigour”.
Francis has said that no Catholic clerics who sexually abused children would escape punishment and has described paedophilia as an “ugly crime” and likened it to a “satanic mass”.
Wesołowski is the most prominent church figure to be arrested since Paolo Gabriele, a former papal butler convicted in 2012 of stealing and leaking private papers of the former pope Benedict XVI.
The Pole was granted house arrest in a Vatican apartment on medical grounds rather than being detained in its prison - a small number of rooms attached to a courthouse.
It is unclear whether Wesołowski would be jailed inside the Vatican, or in an Italian prison, if convicted.