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Vatican ex-ambassador defrocked for sex abuse, faces possible jail time in pending trial

FILE - This March 15, 2013 file photo shows Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, papal nuncio for the Dominican Republic, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Wesolowski has been convicted by a church tribunal of sex abuse and has been defrocked, the first such sentence handed down against a top papal representative, the Vatican said Friday, June 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Manuel Diaz, File)

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FILE - This March 15, 2013 file photo shows Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, papal nuncio for the Dominican Republic, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Wesolowski has been convicted by a church tribunal of sex abuse and has been defrocked, the first such sentence handed down against a top papal representative, the Vatican said Friday, June 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Manuel Diaz, File)

VATICAN CITY - The Vatican has defrocked its former ambassador to the Dominican Republic for sexually abusing boys. It's the first time a top papal envoy has been convicted of the crime and signals that Pope Francis is serious about imposing "zero tolerance" for abuse, regardless of rank.

The Vatican said Friday that Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski was found guilty by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and sentenced to the harshest penalty possible against a cleric under canon law: laicization, meaning he can no longer perform priestly duties or present himself as a priest.

Wesolowski has two months to appeal. After the canonical case is finished, he faces a separate criminal trial in the Vatican City State's tribunal, which could carry a jail term if he is convicted.

The Vatican said it would take "adequate measures" to ensure Wesolowski doesn't flee pending the outcome of the criminal investigation.

The Vatican has never said how Wesolowski responded to the charges and hasn't provided contact information for his lawyer.

The case against Wesolowski has been closely watched, given the grave nature of the charges. It has also been a test of Francis' willingness to sanction even a high-ranking Vatican official for a crime the Holy See has long sought to blame on wayward priests, not direct representatives of the pope.

Francis has told reporters, though, "there were no privileges" for anyone who violated a child and promised "zero tolerance" for abuse at all levels.

The Holy See recalled the Polish-born Wesolowski on Aug. 21, and relieved him of his job after the archbishop of Santo Domingo told Francis about rumours that Wesolowski had sexually abused teenage boys in the Dominican Republic. Prosecutors there say he allegedly paid boys to masturbate.

Dominican authorities opened an investigation, but never charged him on the grounds that Wesolowski had diplomatic immunity. Poland, too, opened an investigation.

On Friday, the Dominican prosecutor general, Francisco Dom�nguez Brito, expressed satisfaction with the canonical verdict.

"This decision paves the way for a penal sentence, which should condemn him," he said.

Dominican President Danilo Medina said Francis had told him during an audience at the Vatican that Wesolowski would be sanctioned with the toughest penalty available.

Polish prosecutor Katarzyna Calow-Jaszewska said the conviction "doesn't change the situation in our proceedings for the time being."

Wesolowski's case had initially raised questions about whether the Vatican, by extracting him from Dominican jurisdiction, was protecting him and placing its own investigations ahead of those in the Caribbean nation.

The case was cited by two U.N. committees that grilled the Vatican earlier this year on its sex abuse record. But Vatican officials assured committee members that justice would be served.

As a papal diplomat and citizen of the Vatican City State, Wesolowski faces criminal charges by the tribunal of Vatican City, which recently updated its laws to specifically criminalize sex abuse of children. It is not clear, however, if the new law can be applied retroactively.

His case has been particularly delicate because Wesolowski was ordained as both a priest and a bishop by his Polish countryman and former pope, St. John Paul II.

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Ezequiel Lopez Blanco in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland contributed.

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Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield

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