First Vatican child abuse trial places former nuncio in dock

Fate of Józef Wesołowski, accused of abusing boys in the Dominican Republic, seen as test of pope’s new approach to tackling alleged clerical wrongdoing

The first high-ranking Vatican official to be charged with paedophilia will face a criminal court in the Holy See on Saturday, in an unprecedented test of Pope Francis’s commitment to tackling the church’s legacy of sexual violence against children.

The trial of the former nuncio Józef Wesołowski from Poland marks the first time that the church has used the criminal justice system put in place by the Argentinian pontiff to handle cases of alleged clerical wrongdoing.

Allegations that Wesołowski paid teenage boys for sexual acts while he was the Vatican’s top diplomat in the Dominican Republic rocked the Holy See when the story broke two years ago. Wearing a baseball cap low over his head, he allegedly trawled the promenade in Santo Domingo for victims among the shoeshine boys.

“He definitely seduced me with money,” Francis Aquino Aneury told the New York Times in 2014. Aneury said he was 14 when a man the shoeshine boys used to call “the Italian”, because he spoke Spanish with an Italian accent, offered them large sums of money in exchange for sexual acts.

“I felt very bad. I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do, but I needed the money,” he said.

The outcome of the trial, and the way it is conducted, will either be seen as validation of the pope’s belief that the Vatican is capable of independently meting out justice against one of its own, or as confirmation of critics’ fears that the new tribunals will act as a church-sponsored shield to protect its hierarchy from other legal jurisdictions.

Like most cases of alleged abuse within the church, the handling of the Wesołowski affair has been controversial from the start.

The 66-year-old cleric, whom the future John Paul II ordained in Poland in 1972, was quietly recalled by Francis in August 2013 after the archbishop of Santo Domingo alerted him to suspicions that Wesołowski had molested teenage boys.

Critics point out that his swift removal from the Dominican Republic prevented authorities there from pursuing immediate action against him.

Wesołowski was held under house arrest in the Vatican rather than in prison to await trial, allegedly for health reasons. He was subjected to an internal ecclesiastical investigation and ultimately removed from the priesthood.

Last year, the Vatican stripped Wesołowski of his diplomatic immunity, and explicitly said the move could make him subject to judicial proceedings in other courts, though it has clearly sought to be the first jurisdiction to try him.

The pope met the chief prosecutor in the Dominican Republic, Francisco Domínguez Brito, at the Vatican last year and discussed the case. Francis reportedly told Brito it was important for “the truth always to prevail”.

While under house arrest, Wesołowski appears to have had access to a computer and the internet, a detail that emerged last month when the Vatican formally announced that it was moving ahead with a criminal trial on charges of sex abuse of minors. A new charge of possessing images of child abuse was added, a crime allegedly committed after returning to Rome.

News of the trial came on the same day the Holy See announced that an archbishop and deputy bishop in the US state of Minnesota were to resign after their archdiocese was charged with systematically turning a blind eye to sex abuse by a paedophile priest. It also came soon after Francis had unveiled the creation of a new tribunal devoted to investigating cases in which senior officials were suspected of ignoring, or worse covering up, abuse cases.

The flurry of activity was hailed by some activists as evidence that Francis was, after some delay, finding momentum. At the same time, however, he continues to be dogged by two other high-profile cases of alleged coverups – one in Chile, involving Bishop Juan Barros, and the other in the Vatican itself, involving the Australian cardinal George Pell.

Both officials have adamantly denied covering up for paedophile priests or discouraging those targeted from coming forward, despite some victims’ claims.

When the Vatican announced Wesołowski’s trial, it said in its bulletin that it would be a “delicate and detailed procedure, requiring the most careful observations and insights from all parties involved”. A small pool of journalists will have access to the proceedings, but no video or photographs will be allowed.

Gabrielle Shaw, the chief executive of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, a British charity whose founder, Peter Saunders, sits on the pope’s abuse commission, said the trial was welcome. “Generally we would like to see theses cases handled by law enforcement [in the countries where the alleged crimes occurred], but we need to give these new procedures a go,” she said. “If he is tried and found guilty and punished, it could mark a new beginning for how the Catholic church deals with this.”

Not every victim advocacy group shares that view. David Clohessy, the executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, believes the trial is a farce. “There are thousands of child-molesting priests, nuns, brothers, and yes, archbishops,” he said. “For the Vatican at this late stage to deem one of them guilty should not be considered earth-shattering by anyone.”

Clohessy said the trial was another “attempt to handle crimes quietly and internally”. Instead, Vatican officials should have raced to the Dominican Republic and publicly declared their concerns as soon as the rumours about Wesołowski emerged.

“It should have begged people who may have suffered to go to the police or prosecutors,” he said. “In Poland, a similar public plea should have been made. Had that happened, Wesołowski would likely be in prison now and more of his victims would have broken their silence.”

Wesołowski could face 12 years in jail, a sentence that could be enforced in an Italian prison or the Vatican cells. If convicted, he will have the right of appeal. The tribunal will be headed by Giuseppe Dalla Torre, a lay jurist and professor at the University of Bologna.


Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Rome

The GuardianTramp

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