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Ex-papal envoy dies at Vatican while awaiting trial on sex-abuse charges

A former papal envoy accused of paying young boys for sex has died before his trial at the Vatican could get underway, officials said Friday.

In the first trial of its kind at the Vatican's own court, Jozef Wesolowski, 67, faced seven years in jail on charges that he paid shoeshine boys for sex while serving as papal nuncio, or ambassador, in the Dominican Republic.

A Vatican statement said Wesolowski was found dead at his residence in the enclave early Friday morning. Although an autopsy has yet to be carried out, the Vatican said natural causes were a likely cause of death.

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Pope Francis has been informed of Wesolowski’s death, the statement said.

In July, Wesolowski was taken to the hospital the day before he was due in court for the first day of his trial, forcing an adjournment. The Vatican did not specify the nature of his illness.

The former archbishop’s trial was the first time a senior church official was sent before a Vatican criminal court accused of sex abuse and marked a crucial test of Pope Francis’ avowal to crack down on abusive priests and the bishops accused of covering up for them. Wesolowski was accused of paying minors for sexual acts, purchasing pedophile material and offending Christian morality.

He was posted to the Dominican Republic as nuncio by Pope Benedict XVI, Francis' predecessor, in 2008.

After reports of his alleged abuse surfaced, Wesolowski was recalled by Francis in 2013 from the Dominican Republic to Rome, where he was defrocked by a church court in June of last year. He was placed under house arrest in September 2014 and ordered to face a criminal trial at the tiny city-state’s own court.

His house-arrest order subsequently expired, and at the time of his death he was free to move around the Vatican but not to leave it.

Wesolowski was staying with a group of Franciscans who hear confession from Roman Catholics visiting St. Peter's Basilica.

The Vatican has been accused of recalling Wesolowski from the Dominican Republic before he could be put on trial there, thus going against its own advice to bishops to cooperate with local police.

The Vatican has said Wesolowski could not be tried until he was stripped of his diplomatic immunity by the Vatican, which occurred last year. Following his criminal trial at the Vatican, he would have been available for extradition to face legal proceedings in the Dominican Republic, the Vatican said.

While residing at the Vatican, Wesolowski was found in possession of child pornography on a computer last year.

Pope John Paul II ordained Wesolowski, a fellow Pole, when he was the archbishop of Krakow and then named him as a bishop in 2000.

Kington is a special correspondent.

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