The Vatican yesterday scotched accusations that by bringing charges in Rome against a former nuncio to the Dominican Republic it was in some way “covering up” his sex abuse crimes against children there. After church procedures have run their course, the Vatican said, he could face trial in other countries.
On 27 June this year Jozef Wesolowski, the Vatican’s former ambassador to the Dominican Republic, was laicized or “reduced to the lay state” — stripped of his priesthood — by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), following a canonical trial.
In church law, laicization is the highest penalty that can be imposed on a priest guilty of sex abuse of minors. Dismissal from the “clerical state” deprives him of all rights and duties associated with being a priest except the obligation of celibacy.
The Vatican on that occasion said Wesolowski had two months to appeal that judgment following which there would be criminal proceedings brought against him under Vatican civil law.
Vatican civil law can be applied to Wesolowski because, as a diplomatic representative of the Holy See, he is a citizen of Vatican City state. Last year, Pope Francis expanded church law to make it possible for any citizen of the Vatican anywhere in the world to be tried under Vatican civil law for sex abuse and terrorism offenses. Wesolowski could face a maximum of 12 years in prison and a fine of nearly US$200,000.
Yesterday, the Vatican said Wesolowski had decided to appeal the canonical ruling, and that a hearing to consider his appeal would be scheduled as soon as possible, probably October.
Criminal proceedings by judicial authorities at the Vatican would take place as soon as the canonical sentence is confirmed, said the Vatican’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi.
Despite Wesolowski facing the full force of both canon and Vatican civil law, some have accused the Vatican of preventing him facing justice in the Dominican Republic, where the crimes were committed.
A powerful front-page article by Laurie Goodstein in Sunday’s New York Times documents the Polish cleric’s cynical sexual exploitation of boys, and claims that
…. far from settling the matter, the Vatican has stirred an outcry because it helped Mr. Wesolowski avoid criminal prosecution and a possible jail sentence in the Dominican Republic. Acting against its own guidelines for handling abuse cases, the church failed to inform the local authorities of the evidence against him, secretly recalled him to Rome last year before he could be investigated, and then invoked diplomatic immunity for Mr. Wesolowski so that he could not face trial in the Dominican Republic.
The Vatican’s handling of the case shows both the changes the church has made in dealing with sexual abuse, and what many critics call its failures. When it comes to removing paedophiles from the priesthood, the Vatican is moving more assertively and swiftly than before. But as Mr. Wesolowski’s case suggests, the church continues to be reluctant to report people suspected of abuse to the local authorities and allow them to face justice in secular courts.
But yesterday Father Lombardi said that, far from there being any cover-up or attempt to evade justice, the Vatican had acted entirely properly in recalling to Rome a man who at the time had diplomatic immunity. He added that, now that Wesolowski is no longer a diplomat and no longer has immunity, he could face extradition and prosecution in the Dominican Republic. Father Lombardi said:
It is important to note that former nuncio Wesolowski has ceased functioning as a diplomat of the Holy See and has therefore lost his related diplomatic immunity, and has been previously stated, the punitive procedure of the Vatican’s civil judiciary departments will continue as soon as the canonical sentence becomes definitive. Regarding stories that have appeared over the past few days in various media, it is important to note that the Authorities of the Holy See, from the very first moments that this case was made known to them, moved without delay and correctly in light of the fact that former nuncio Wesolowski held the position of a diplomatic representative of the Holy See.
This action relates to his recall to Rome and in the treatment of the case in relation to Authorities of the Dominican Republic. Far from any intention of a cover-up, this action demonstrates the full and direct undertaking of the Holy See’s responsibility even in such a serious and delicate case, about which Pope Francis is duly and carefully informed and one which the Pope wishes to address justly and rigorously. We must finally state that since former nuncio Wesolowski has ended all diplomatic activity and its related immunity, he might also be subjected to judicial procedures from the courts that could have specific jurisdiction over him.
Should he be found guilty under Vatican civil and Dominican civil law, Wesolowski will have faced prosecution in three different jurisdictions – which would be hardly an evasion of justice.
In May, Pope Francis said three bishops were under investigation for misdeeds related to the sexual abuse of minors, one of whom — understood to be Wesolowski — had “already been condemned.” He spoke to reporters on that occasion that abusers would face “zero tolerance”.
Wesolowski, 66, was ordained in Krakow by its then archbishop, Karol Józef Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II. In 1999, Wesolowski was appointed papal nuncio to Bolivia, and in 2002 he was reassigned to Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. In 2008, he was sent to the Dominican Republic. He was recalled to the Vatican in September last year, after allegations surfaced of his having paid boys on the seafront to perform sexual acts.