Vatican watchers, especially non-Catholics who love the Roman Catholic Church as I do, watch and pray for further reforms that are needed inside the Church. I was pleased to read this week of the Vatican putting Józef Wesołowski, its former nuncio (ambassador) to the Dominican Republic under house arrest on Tuesday, September 23.
Archbishop Józef Wesołowski was born in Nowy Targ, Poland, on 15 July 1948. He was ordained a priest in Kraków on 21 May 1972 by Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, the future Pope John Paul II. He was appointed as nuncio to Bolivia on 3 November 1999. On 6 January 2000 he was consecrated Titular Archbishop of Sléibhte by John Paul II. During the course of 2002 he was appointed as nuncio to the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. On 24 January 2008 he was appointed nuncio to the Dominican Republic. In 2013 he was identified by a 13-year-old boy as the man who took sexual lurid photographs of him on his cell phone. He was removed from his nuncio position on August 26 last year via resignation.
According to various reports Józef Wesołowski liked to frequent areas of Santo Domingo where poor children worked in the streets. He paid for sexually suggestive poses and actions and then filmed them. A criminal trial has begun against Wesolowski, the first time a high-ranking Vatican official has ever faced criminal charges for sexually abusing minors. Some will rightly say, “It’s about time.” I agree. But it has finally happened and I rejoice. Sad as these cases are the Vatican has clearly begun a well-thought-out campaign to deal with them more aggressively. Under the beloved John Paul II the Vatican quite clearly dragged its heels. (The reasons are quite complex but not excusable in the end.) Under Pope Benedict XVI there was improvement but much more action was needed by the church in dealing with sexual predators. Now the changes are becoming more significant and noteworthy. I think we must pray that they become a permanent part of the modern Catholic culture. The whole cause of Christ suffers when such cases are not dealt with by firm church discipline and civil law.
On 27 June 2014, the Vatican Press Office announced that the first stage of the canonical trial of Wesołowski ended with his laicisation. A laicized cleric is forbidden to exercise ministerial functions under nearly all circumstances. In general, any exercise of his power to administer the sacraments is considered valid but illicit, except in extraordinary circumstances. On 23 September, the Vatican opened a hearing toward criminal proceedings against Wesołowski. Because of his health, he remains under house arrest for the duration of his trial rather than under more restrictive detention. On Tuesday, the Vatican City State’s separate criminal curate opened a preliminary hearing into the case and ordered this house arrest.
I have commented infrequently about these abuse cases. The reasons for my reticence are several. First, I do not know enough about canon law to explain the Catholic Church’s response adequately. Second, I am not a Catholic. Third, I believe the culture of protect and reassign is deadly to the church’s pastoral and missional work. I wanted to see positive proof of significant change. I now think we have that in this particular case. This does not undo the wrongs of the past but it is the only response to the past that is correct. There must be repentance followed by a correction of the errors.
I know that the general public expects a higher standard of moral discipline from all churches, Catholic or otherwise. It seems to me that the Catholic view of the priesthood has presented some significant hurdles for pursuing a full and complete investigation that leads to serious action against prelates who have violated children. I am very pleased that Pope Francis has acted to reform this process. It appears that Pope Benedict hoped this would happen under a new pope. Now we are finally seeing the fruit of this much-needed reform. It is overdue, to say the least. We should all pray it impacts the church globally for the good of all Christians, thus for our common witness to the world.