Jozef Wesolowski CNS photo

Zero tolerance

  • October 2, 2014

In a widely reported statement Pope Francis recently told bishops to protect minors with “utmost care” and warned that anyone who failed would “be held accountable.” 

It was an unequivocal edict that is now being tested in the case of a former Polish archbishop accused of abusing minors while serving as the Vatican representative in the Dominican Republic. Jozef Wesolowski is under house arrest and facing a criminal court; Pope Francis is under watchful eyes and facing a court of public opinion. 

The Wesolowski affair is being described as a test of the Pope’s commitment to move quickly, transparently and with a firm hand when dealing with clergy accused of abusing children. In the early months of his papacy the Pope endured criticism from some groups and media that demanded he raise this issue to the top of his agenda. The rebukes were unjust. Like Pope Benedict XVI, Francis has been firm in his resolve to enforce zero-tolerance regarding what he calls evil and despicable acts. 

Wesolowski represents his first major test. The former nuncio to the Dominican Republic was laicized in June following a Vatican investigation into allegations he paid to have sex with boys. In addition to stripping Wesolowski of his clerical standing, the Vatican recently took the rare step of placing him under house arrest while he awaits trial in Vatican court on criminal charges. He faces a possible prison term of up to seven years. The Vatican also revoked Wesolowski’s diplomatic immunity, so he could face foreign charges and, after he serves any Italian prison time, be extradited to the Dominican Republic or Poland, where he is also being investigated. 

Despite all this, the Pope has not escaped criticism. When Wesolowski was recalled from the Dominican Republic a New York Times editorial ridiculously called it a “devious and secret stratagem” to help the envoy escape prosecution. But there was never a possibility that Wesolowski, who held diplomatic immunity, could face charges there at that time. The only way to fully prosecute Wesolowski under international law was to recall him to the Vatican, file charges and revoke his immunity. The Vatican did all that, hastily, as well as defrocking him. His reputation is ruined and, at 66, he may spend most of what’s left of his life behind bars. 

Fifteen months ago the Pope revised Vatican statutes to stiffen penalties for crimes against minors. It seems the new laws can’t be applied retroactively, but if they could Wesolowski would be facing 12 years in Vatican prison if convicted, plus any future sentence handed down by a foreign court. Far from getting an easy ride, as the Pope’s critics have contended, Wesolowski is being held fully accountable. 

That’s exactly how it should be. 

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