Pope Francis sounds genuinely contrite for the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy, and he has promised that those responsible will be called to account . Yet as an institution, the church still seems stuck in the habit of protecting clergy members from secular criminal justice systems.
In certain ways, the church has been moving more swiftly than usual in response to the troubling case of the Vatican’s former ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Jozef Wesolowski, who was accused of sexually molesting boys in the island nation. When the accusations reached the Vatican in August of 2013, Wesolowski was quickly yet quietly recalled to Rome, and a church tribunal defrocked him in June of this year. Wesolowski became the highest-ranking Vatican official ever to be found guilty of sex abuse under canon law.
Even so, he apparently remained a free man; he has been seen strolling around Rome, according to a troubling New York Times report in August. The newspaper detailed the allegations of sexual crimes by Wesolowski in the Dominican Republic, where he arrived as nuncio in 2008; his young victims say Wesolowski paid them for sexual favors. Aggravating the situation, it seemed that the 66-year-old former nuncio had retained his diplomatic immunity even after being defrocked. That is, until the Vatican eventually released a statement saying Wesolowski did not have that protection anymore.
Then, late last month, the church announced Wesolowski’s arrest as a separate Vatican criminal court held a hearing on his case. Beyond charges of sexual abuse, he was also accused of having child pornography. If found guilty — after Pope Francis’ revision of the Vatican law regarding sexual abuse in 2013, Wesolowski can be sentenced to up to 12 years in prison — the former ambassador would be the highest-ranking church official to be convicted. And it would be only the second major case in recent memory, after Paolo Gabriele, Pope Benedict’s former butler, was sent to Vatican prison on charges of aggravated theft.
Yet the Vatican’s decision to handle Wesolowski in its own justice system is hardly a guarantee that justice will be done. Wesolowski is currently under house arrest. Gabriele only served a few months of his reduced 18-month sentence — again, on house arrest — before Pope Benedict pardoned him. If Wesolowski is sent to prison, he could presumably serve his sentence in an Italian prison, which is allowed through a 1929 treaty between the Vatican and Italy.
But the Dominican Republic’s attorney general wants to criminally charge Wesolowski, and a court there has opened a case against the former Vatican ambassador. Authorities there are calling for his extradition. So are officials in Poland, Wesolowski’s country of origin, where he has also been accused of sexual abuse. Instead, the Vatican has effectively sheltered the former nuncio by summoning him to Rome. Pope Francis has vowed zero tolerance for perpetrators of abuse. Allowing Wesolowski to stand trial before legitimate civil authorities outside the Vatican would send that message.