Ex nuncio abuser arrested ahead of Vatican trial

The Holy See's former representative to the Dominican Republic, Josef Weselowski.

The Holy See’s former representative to the Dominican Republic, Josef Weselowski.

A Polish national who was earlier this year stripped of his priesthood following serious allegations of abuse while serving as nuncio to the Dominican Republic has been arrested by Vatican police ahead of a criminal trial. (CV Comment background here).

The decision to arrest former archbishop Josef Wesolowski, 66, was taken by Vatican prosecutors in light of what Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi described as “the seriousness of the allegations” which had prompted investigators “to impose a restrictive measure”. Because Wesolowski is in poor health, he has not been imprisoned but placed under house arrest in a location within Vatican City State.

Wesolowski was stripped of his priesthood by a canonical court at the Vatican on June 27 after being recalled to Rome in September 2013 following a direct appeal to Pope Francis by Santo Domingo’s archbishop, Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez. The cardinal had learned from various sources that the nuncio had sexually abused minors during his five years (2008-13) in the city.

The laicization of a bishop for sexual abuse has been very rare. Typically, as in the case of the former bishop of Bruges in Belgium, Roger Vangheluwe, who in 2010 admitted to abusing his nephews, bishops have been suspended from ministry and retired to a life of prayer and penance. But there have been two cases in the past two years. Retired bishop Raymond Lahey of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, convicted by a civil court in 2011 of importing child pornography, was laicized by the Vatican in 2012; and last year an auxiliary bishop of Ayacucho, Peru, Gabino Miranda, was dismissed from the priesthood because of sexual misconduct.

Wesolowski is the first nuncio to have been laicized for sexual misconduct, and will be the first to face a criminal trial on sex abuse charges under revised laws signed by Pope Francis in July last year which apply to all citizens of Vatican City State, whether at home or abroad.  The laws set out penalties for specific crimes against minors, including the sale of children, child prostitution, sexual violence against children and producing or possessing child pornography, and apply to all employees of the Holy See working in a Vatican office or a nunciature abroad.

The Vatican’s decision to recall Wesolowski was criticised at the time as enabling him to avoid criminal prosecution in the Dominican Republic. In an editorial, the New York Times described it as “a devious and secret stratagem engineered by unidentified Vatican officials” in which the nuncio was recalled “before Dominican authorities could bring criminal charges of child abuse against him.”

Yet Dominican authorities declined initially to press charges because Wesolowski had diplomatic immunity, and therefore could not be prosecuted in the Caribbean state under Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961).

Only by recalling him, which stripped him of that immunity, could the Vatican ensure he will face penalties, both canonical and criminal. In this, the Vatican was acting in accordance with custom: it is usual practice for states whose diplomats break the law while serving in other jurisdictions to withdraw them swiftly and punish them under the jurisdiction of the home country. Far from a cover-up, said Fr Lombardi in August, it showed the Pope wanted the case tackled “justly and rigorously.”

The fact that Wesolowski has now been arrested suggests that Vatican prosecutors have been able to secure sufficient evidence from the Dominican Republic to bring a criminal case against him. The Vatican City State’s criminal court opened a preliminary hearing into his case Tuesday.

In arresting Wesolowski, Fr Lombardi said, Vatican authorities had acted in accordance with the “will expressed by the Pope, that such a grave and delicate case might be addressed without delay, with the just and necessary rigor, with the full assumption of responsibility by the institutions of the Holy See.”

The Vatican is determined to press charges against Wesolowski not just because of the nature of the allegations, but because Wesolowski was an official representative of the Holy See. Because his alleged crimes were committed prior to the new laws, an  criminal law cannot be applied retroactively, he is likely to be charged under the older legislation. But he could still face up to 12 years in prison in an Italian gaol, and a hefty fine. Judging by the previous high-profile Vatican trial — that of Paolo Gabriele, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s butler in 2012 — the proceedings would be semi-public.

It is not clear if Wesolowski will additionally face the possibility of extradition, which the stripping of his diplomatic credentials makes possible. Judicial authorities in both the Dominican Republic and Poland have expressed interest in bringing charges. But what seems virtually certain is that Wesolowski will first face the full force of the Vatican’s own law, in what is being seen as a test case for Pope Francis’s determination to eradicate clerical impunity.

[Austen Ivereigh]

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