The Vatican has caused an outcry after Jozef Wesolowski avoided charges in the Dominican Republic.
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – He was a familiar figure to the skinny shoeshine boys who work along the oceanfront promenade here. Wearing black track pants and a baseball cap pulled low over his balding head, they say, he would stroll along in the late afternoon and bring one of them down to the rocky shoreline or to a deserted monument for a local Catholic hero.
The boys say he gave them money to perform sexual acts. They called him “the Italian” because he spoke Spanish with an Italian accent.
It was only after he was suddenly spirited out of the country, the boys say, his picture splashed all over the local news media, that they learned his real identity: Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, the Vatican’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic.
“He definitely seduced me with money,” said Francis Aquino Aneury, who says he was 14 when the man he met shining shoes began offering him increasingly larger sums for sexual acts. “I felt very bad. I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do, but I needed the money.”
The case is the first time that a top Vatican ambassador, or nuncio — who serves as a personal envoy of the pope — has been accused of sexual abuse of minors. It has sent shock waves through the Vatican and two predominantly Catholic countries that have only begun to grapple with clergy sexual abuse: the Dominican Republic and Poland, where Wesolowski was ordained by the Polish prelate who later became Pope John Paul II.
It also has created a test for Pope Francis, who has called child sexual abuse “such an ugly crime” and pledged to move the Roman Catholic Church into an era of “zero tolerance.” For priests and bishops who have violated children, he told reporters in May, “There are no privileges.”
Wesolowski has already faced the harshest penalty possible under the church’s canon law, short of excommunication: on June 27, he was defrocked by the Vatican, reducing him to the status of a layman. The Vatican, which as a city-state has its own judicial system, also has said it intends to try him on criminal charges — the first time the Vatican has held a criminal trial for sexual abuse.
But far from settling the matter, the Vatican has stirred an outcry because it helped Wesolowski avoid criminal prosecution in the Dominican Republic. Acting against its own guidelines for handling abuse cases, the church failed to inform the local authorities of the evidence against him, secretly recalled him to Rome last year before he could be investigated, and then invoked diplomatic immunity for Wesolowski so he could not face trial in the Dominican Republic.
The Vatican’s handling of the case underscores both the changes the church has made in dealing with sexual abuse, and what many critics call its failures. When it comes to removing pedophiles from the priesthood, the Vatican is moving more assertively and swiftly than before. But as Wesolowski’s case suggests, the church continues to be reluctant to report people suspected of abuse to the local authorities and allow them to face justice in secular courts.
‘We have offended God’
Wesolowski, 66, was sent to the Dominican Republic in 2008. At some point, he began sending a young church deacon to procure children for him, law enforcement authorities in the Dominican say.
The deacon, Francisco Javier Occi Reyes, was arrested by the police on June 24, 2013, accused of solicitation of minors and taken to jail. But no one came to bail him out, and the deacon sent an anguished letter dated July 2 to Wesolowski, to be delivered to him by hand at his office.
“We have offended God” and the church, the letter said, by sexually abusing children and adolescents “for crumbs of money.” The deacon wrote he had agreed to find child victims for the nuncio so that “your sexual appetite can be satiated,” but that he was now asking God for forgiveness.
The deacon sent copies of the letter to Cardinal Nicolas de Jesus López Rodriguez, the head of the church in the Dominican Republic, and to a Dominican bishop, Gregorio Nicanor Peña Rodríguez. The cardinal then carried the evidence to the Vatican, where he met directly with the pope, according to interviews with the Dominican authorities. On Aug. 21 last year, Wesolowski was secretly recalled to Rome.
Six days later, the cardinal called the papal nuncio “a great friend and promoter of peace.”
Neither the cardinal nor other church officials reported the allegations to the local authorities, Dominican officials say. Vatican guidelines say criminal sexual abuse accusations should be reported in countries where reporting is required.
The country’s attorney general, Francisco Domínguez Brito, and the district attorney of Santo Domingo, Yeni Berenice Reynoso Gómez, both said they first learned about the allegations against Wesolowski from television reports, which were broadcast in early September.
Soon after, church officials here told local news media Wesolowski had been recalled because of the allegations against him, prompting Rodriguez to confirm that he had gone to the Vatican to address the matter. He and other church officials denied requests for an interview.