AT LAST

Did the Vatican Arrest an Abuser to Protect Him?

Papal authorities have finally arrested one of their own on horrific sex abuse charges, but critics wonder if the ex-archbishop is being protected from harsher civilian courts.

09.24.14 4:59 PM ET

Jozef Wesolowski, the 66-year-old former papal nuncio to the Dominican Republic, was a familiar figure to the shoe-shine boys in Santo Domingo, according to countless criminal complaints that led to the warrant for his arrest for child sex abuse last year. The high-ranking prelate was said to stroll the areas where the boys worked for a few pesos, effectively shopping for innocent victims to perform sex acts including masturbation and fellatio on him. He did not look the part of a prominent archbishop. Instead, he traveled incognito in track pants and a baseball cap to hide his identity, according to a New York Times exposé. 

Wesolowski was also a familiar figure at the Vatican in Rome. Not only was he known as one of the blessed Polish priests who Pope John Paul II ordained before he became pope. He was also a fugitive from secular law, having been swiftly rescued from criminal prosecution in Poland and Santo Domingo in 2013 to face a private canonical trial by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which ultimately ended with his defrocking. 

The newly defrocked archbishop was allowed to stay in the confines of Vatican City (but was frequently spotted walking in Rome) while he appealed that decision, which was upheld this week when the Vatican’s promoter of justice indicted him on charges of child sex abuse.  It is the first time a prelate has ever been known to be arrested inside Vatican City. Wesolowski is confined to house arrest in the walled city, awaiting trial in front of the Vatican tribunal.  He will not be held in the Vatican’s jail like Pope Benedict’s butler Paolo Gabriele, who was convicted of stealing the pope’s private papers and leaking them to a journalist in 2012 for stealing papal documents. “The seriousness of the allegations has prompted the official investigation to impose a restrictive measure that, in light of the accused’s health condition, as evidenced by medical documentation, consists of house arrest, with its related limitations, in a location within the Vatican City State,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said in a statement Tuesday night. “The initiative taken by the judicial departments of Vatican City State is a result of the express desire of the Pope, so that a case so serious and delicate would be addressed without delay, with just and necessary rigor, and with full assumption of responsibility on the part of the institutions that are governed by the Holy See.”

The fact that the prominent archbishop who was mentored by beloved pope John Paul II, but whose crimes were so widespread and well known, is being held to justice by the Vatican is a signal of the seriousness with which Francis considers the sins of pedophile priests, which he has likened to satanic worship.

But the fact that Wesolowski is facing Vatican justice rather than being tried in a secular court in either the Dominican Republic or Poland is troubling victims of sexual abuse. Late last year, when Wesolowski was whisked to Vatican City, the attorney general of Warsaw filed an immediate order for his extradition, which was met by an even quicker denial by the Roman Curia: “Archbishop Wesolowski is a citizen of the Vatican, and Vatican law does not allow for his extradition,” was the answer in a communiqué from the Vatican Secretariat of State, implying that defrocking Wesolowski, who is a Polish citizen, did not affect his protective citizenship in the tiny city-state.

The Surivors Network for Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) says that while the arrest and subsequent action are welcome, it is simply too little, too late—especially for the Dominican boys who suffered unimaginable abuse by the high-ranking Vatican ambassador. “Vatican officials in Rome claim they have put an accused child-molesting ex-archbishop on house arrest. We’re skeptical,” SNAP director David Clohessy said on Tuesday. “Josef Wesolowski faces allegations of child sexual abuse in the Dominican Republic. We are grateful that this action has finally been taken, feel it should have happened months ago, and believe it’s better if secular authorities are able to jail and prosecute Wesolowski.”

The Vatican has not yet announced a trial date, or whether any or all of the hearings will be open to the public or journalists. In 2012, the trial of Gabriele, the butler, was the first trial ever witnessed by accredited journalists to the Holy See, and it is reasonable to assume that Wesolowski’s trial could also be transparent. Under new child sex abuse laws instituted by Benedict in 2010, Wesolowski could face up to 7 years in a Vatican prison if he is convicted. If Wesolowski is extradited to face similar charges in the Dominican Republic, he could face up to 50 years or more in a secular prison there.