The latest pedophile scandal involving the Roman Catholic Church raises a distressingly familiar question: is the Church fighting to end sexual abuse by its priests, or still trying to avoid responsibility? Even worse, from the Church’s perspective, the current outrage calls into question the personal ethics of Pope Francis, whose popularity with rank-and-file Catholics and with the faith community generally is in the same league with that of John XXIII or John-Paul II.
Pope Francis is popular for the excellent reason that “humble” and “frugal” have not been common words to describe those who have occupied the throne of St. Peter, and this Pope has made very public efforts to emulate the life of a carpenter’s son rather than a life of royal privilege. Still, the Pope has personal representatives and many of them are accustomed to royal privileges.
The Papal Nuncio to the Dominican Republic, Jozef Wesolowski, came to the attention of prosecutors when Nuria Piera, General Director of Cadena de Noticias (CDN), a television station owned by the principal newspaper in Santo Domingo, El Caribe, sent a camera crew to chase down rumors that the nuncio had been luring boys to the beach house (a perk of his office) to engage in sex for money. According to The New York Times, Wesolowski caught the reporters following him and quit cruising for boys on the beach. Instead, he sent a Church deacon, Francisco Reyes, to pander for His Excellency.
(A Papal Nuncio does not represent the city-state of Vatican City. He [always “he”] represents the Holy See, and its personification, the Pope. Each nuncio is personally selected by the Pope and, in Catholic countries, the nuncio is senior in diplomatic protocol to secular ambassadors. Even in non-Catholic countries, the nuncio has all the privileges and immunities of other ambassadors because the Holy See is a signatory to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.)
Reverend Mr. Reyes got arrested for solicitation of a minor on June 24, 2013. When nobody from the Church appeared promptly to bail him out, he squealed and named names of alleged child molesters in a letter written on July 2 to, among others, Cardinal Nicolas de Jesus López Rodriguez, who flew to the Vatican and presented the evidence directly to Pope Francis.
The Pope then quietly recalled his nuncio on August 21 without informing Dominican authorities of either the allegations or the recall, spiriting His Excellency Jozef Wesolowski out of the Dominican Republic just ahead of an investigation of numerous counts of child sexual abuse, which began in early September when CDN ran Ms. Piera’s reports. Only then, did the Church announce that Pope Francis had recalled his nuncio. The Vatican then invoked diplomatic immunity to keep the nuncio from being tried for his crimes in the Dominican Republic. After The New York Times reported the story in August of this year, the Vatican reversed course and stripped Wesolowski’s diplomatic immunity, but hedged the decision in a way that sends mixed messages.
The Associated Press reported that Rev. Federico Lombardi, speaking for the Vatican, said that in light of the loss of diplomatic immunity, the former nuncio “might also be subjected to judicial procedures from the courts that could have specific jurisdiction over him.” Of course, the Dominican courts have no jurisdiction (because Wesolowski is not a citizen) unless the Vatican honors an extradition request, which can be obstructed by the Church at both ends, in the Dominican Republic and in Vatican City.
Many countries, moreover, will not extradite for conduct that is not criminal in the sanctuary state, either because the extradition treaty says so or because the courts say so. Child sexual abuse was apparently not a crime in Vatican City when Wesolowski was allegedly an active pedophile.
Wesolowski has been defrocked (a sanction currently on appeal in the canonical courts) and the Church claims he will face criminal charges under Vatican City law. This claim seems unlikely because to prosecute for conduct before it was made illegal would violate the bedrock principle of every civilized legal system, nullum poena sine lege (no punishment without law).
Should lawyer-Latin not translate to Church-Latin, there’s been no announcement of how many alleged victims will be flown in to testify or whether the former nuncio will be incarcerated pending trial. The New York Times reported that Victor Masalles, a Dominican bishop, claimed that he saw Wesolowski free on the streets of Vatican City on a June visit.
The Dominican Republic did not initially make an issue of the Church’s claim of diplomatic immunity. Prosecutors in Poland, where Wesolowski holds dual citizenship with Vatican City, did. Poland is prosecuting another priest for child sexual abuse in the Dominican Republic, Rev. Wojciech Gil, and Dominican prosecutors claim that Father Gil molested young boys at the nuncio’s beach house with Wesolowski present and participating. Depending on Polish law, Poland may not need Wesoloski’s physical presence to assert jurisdiction, but they will to punish him.
Most of the priesthood’s sexual abuse of children and subsequent cover-up happened before Pope Francis began his reign. This case, where the allegation is that Francis made a decision that directly contradicts the “new” Church policy to report pedophile priests to secular criminal justice authorities, will be a public test of the Pope’s determination to clean up the mess he inherited.