By Crispian Balmer
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - A former archbishop and papal ambassador to the Dominican Republic fell ill and was taken to hospital ahead of the opening of his trial on Saturday for alleged child sex offences, a Vatican official said.
Jozef Wesolowski, a former archbishop and "apostolic nuncio", or Vatican ambassador, in Santo Domingo, is accused of paying boys to perform sexual acts, of downloading and buying paedophile material, and offending Christian morality.
Under arrest in the tiny Vatican state since last September, Wesolowski complained of feeling ill on Friday and was sent to an Italian intensive care unit, the court heard. Officials did not give any further information about his condition.
The trial, seen as an important test of Pope Francis's drive to clean up the Roman Catholic Church, opened regardless, with the court reading out a list of five charges against the 66-year-old Polish national.
The hearing was then postponed until a future date.
Wesolowski is the first high-ranking Catholic official to stand trial in the Vatican on such sex charges and the case is being closely watched by victims of priestly abuse, who have accused the Vatican of repeatedly hushing up previous scandals.
In an effort to make the clergy accountable for their actions around the world, Pope Francis has re-written Church rules, opening the way for Saturday's trial.
Wesolowski, who was ordained to the priesthood by fellow Pole, Pope John Paul, was recalled to Rome from Santo Domingo in 2013 when accusations against him first surfaced.
Saturday's charge sheet accused him of sexually abusing an undisclosed number of boys "presumably" aged between 13 and 16, saying the abuse took place in public on at least one occasion.
He was also accused of causing "serious harm" to the children because of the mental trauma they had suffered.
Wesolowski has already been defrocked by a Vatican tribunal, a rare occurrence for an archbishop and a sign of how seriously the Church has taken the accusations against him.
He faces up to eight years in jail if found guilty of abusing a minor and two years for possession of child pornography. These sentences could be lengthened if the small Vatican court decides there are extenuating circumstances.
Any prison time would almost certainly be served in Italy rather than the Vatican, which does not have a properly functioning jail. Officials have also suggested he could be extradited to the Dominican Republic or his native Poland.
Looking to restore the credibility of the Roman Catholic Church, Francis ruled in 2013 that the Vatican's criminal code could be applied to its employees wherever they lived.
In June, he also approved the creation of an unprecedented Vatican tribunal to judge bishops accused of covering up or failing to prevent sexual abuse of minors.
While some of the groups representing victims of priestly abuse have welcomed the Wesolowski trial, they have said much more needs to be done to root out wrongdoers.
One group, BishopAccountability.org, says 79 bishops have been accused publicly of sexual wrongdoing, and only four have been defrocked.
The pope was not in the Vatican on Saturday, but is visiting South America, with much of the Vatican media pack in tow.
"It's very important that they do this right and I'm pretty sure that the date was chosen so that there wasn't a big media circus surrounding day one of the trial," said Robert Mickens, editor-in-chief of the Catholic magazine "Global Pulse".
A Vatican official has said the trial is likely to continue for several months.
(Additional reporting by Reuters Television; Editing by Ralph Boulton)