Vatican to Try Former Archbishop on Child Sex Abuse Charges

Vatican tries Archbishop Józef Wesołowski
The trial of Archbishop Józef Wesołowski sees the highest ranking Vatican official ever to face charges for sex abuse Max Rossi MR/GB/CRB/Reuters

The criminal trial of a former papal diplomat on charges of child sexual abuse will get underway tomorrow at the Vatican, in a case that could set a historic precedent for how the Catholic church handles priests accused of sex abuse.

Polish-born Józef Wesołowski, 66, will face a criminal court of the Holy See, and will be the highest-ranking Vatican official ever to face criminal charges for paedophilia.

Wesołowski, ordained in 1972, later served as a papal diplomat in the late 1990s and 2000s. He was eventually named the nuncio, or ambassador, to the Dominican Republic in 2008.

However, he resigned from this role in 2013 amid allegations of child abuse, including charges that he was picking up underage "shoeshine boys" in Santo Domingo and paying them in exchange for sexual acts.

"He definitely seduced me with money," one victim, Francis Aquino Aneury, told the New York Times in 2014. Aneury was 14 at the time. "I felt very bad. I knew it wasn't the right thing to do, but I needed the money," he said.

When rumours began to surface in the local media, Wesołowski was quietly recalled to the Vatican before officials in San Domingo could investigate. He was then defrocked in June 2014 and placed under house arrest inside Vatican City.

Pope Francis set up a Vatican committee to fight sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church and offer help to victims back in 2013. He also created the legal basis for trials by issuing an edict specifying that criminal laws of the Vatican City State are also applicable to employees in other parts of the world.

The Vatican announced last month that it would also bring child pornography charges against the former ambassador, crimes allegedly committed once he had been recalled to Rome.

Questions have been raised as to why Wesołowski was not sent back to the Dominican Republic to face criminal charges when the scandal first broke. According to the U.S. Catholic news website, Crux Now, the Vatican said it would comply with any extradition request, but also argued that since Wesołowski was holding a Vatican passport at the time of the alleged crimes, he must first face sanctions under the Vatican's own criminal law.

Some argue that the new tribunals set up by Pope Francis simply prove that the Vatican is attempting to handle the matter internally. David Clohessy, executive director of the U.S.-based charity Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, says: "Catholic officials across the world especially in Rome continue to be dreadfully secretive and irresponsible when it comes to clergy sex abuse and cover-up cases, and this one is no different. Church officials are doing everything to keep these cases as quiet as possible and as far away from secular authorities as they can."

"We're utterly not convinced," Clohessy continues. "There's a clear divide; either turn cases over to the independent unbiased professionals in law and enforcement or continue to handle them quietly and internally. That's what happening here." Clohessy also believes it is unlikely to emerge who helped Wesołowski conceal his crimes.

However, Gabrielle Shaw, chief executive officer of the UK's National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC), believes the trial marks an important turning point in the Catholic Church's child abuse scandal.

"We think this is a good step forward for the Church facing up to child abuse in its own ranks," she told Newsweek. "It is the first test of the new laws and guidelines Pope Francis has put in place for abuse of this type, and proof the Church is moving in the right direction. We'll watch the outcome with great interest."

If convicted, Wesolowski could face up to 12 years in jail. That term could be served in a Vatican facility, but in the past, some of those convicted in a Vatican court have served time in Italian prisons.