SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — He was a familiar figure to the skinny shoeshine boys who work along the oceanfront promenade here. Wearing black track pants and a baseball cap, they say, he would stroll along in the late afternoon and bring one of them down to the rocky shoreline or to a deserted monument for a local Catholic hero.
The boys say he gave them money to perform sexual acts. They called him “the Italian” because he spoke Spanish with an Italian accent.
It was only after he was suddenly spirited out of the country, the boys say, his picture splashed all over the local news media, that they learned his real identity: Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, the Vatican’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic.
“He definitely seduced me with money,” said Francis Aquino Aneury, who says he was 14 when the man he met shining shoes began offering him increasingly larger sums for sexual acts. “I felt very bad. I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do, but I needed the money.”
The case is the first time that a top Vatican ambassador, or nuncio — who serves as a personal envoy of the pope — has been accused of sexual abuse of minors.
It has sent shock waves through the Vatican and two predominantly Catholic countries that have only begun to grapple with clergy sexual abuse: the Dominican Republic and Poland, where Wesolowski was ordained by the Polish prelate who later became Pope John Paul II.
It has also created a test for Pope Francis, who has called child sexual abuse “such an ugly crime” and pledged to move the Roman Catholic Church into an era of “zero tolerance.” For priests and bishops who have violated children, he told reporters in May, “There are no privileges.”
Wesolowski has already faced the harshest penalty possible under the church’s canon law short of excommunication: On June 27, he was defrocked by the Vatican, reducing him to the status of a layman. The Vatican, which as a city state has its own judicial system, has also said that it intends to try Wesolowski on criminal charges — the first time the Vatican has held a criminal trial for sexual abuse.
But far from settling the matter, the Vatican has stirred an outcry because it helped 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 Wesolowski so he could not face trial in the Dominican Republic.
The Vatican’s handling of the case underscores both the changes the church has made in dealing with sexual abuse, and what many critics call its failures.
When it comes to removing pedophiles from the priesthood, the Vatican is moving more assertively and swiftly than before. But as 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.
Wesolowski, 66, was ordained at 23 in Krakow by Archbishop Karol Józef Wojtyla, who later became Pope John Paul II. In 1999, he 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. Wesolowski served as a ceremonial dean of the international diplomatic corps here. The posting came with a stately residence and access to a beach house.
On the waterfront, Wesolowski attempted to disguise his rank, the boys say. He drove a small SUV, they recalled, and parked it near the monument in the colonial zone, where several streets are named for archbishops.
One day last year, Nuria Piera, a prominent television journalist, received a tip that the papal nuncio drank beer many afternoons at a waterfront restaurant, then went off with young boys.
Piera sent a video crew to surreptitiously film the nuncio, she said in an interview at CDN, where she is general director. After that, Piera said, he disappeared from the waterfront.
Wesolowski then began sending a young Dominican church deacon to procure children for him, law enforcement authorities in the Dominican Republic say.
The deacon, Francisco Javier Occi Reyes, was arrested by the police on June 24, 2013, accused of solicitation of minors, and taken to jail. But no one came to bail him out, and the deacon sent an anguished letter dated July 2 to Wesolowski.
“We have offended God” and the church, the letter said, by sexually abusing children and adolescents “for crumbs of money.”