Wesolowski Sexual Abuse Case a New Approach or Same Old Same Old?

Former Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, ambassador of the Vatican to the Dominican Republic, is now a layperson awaiting criminal trial in the Vatican for sexual abuse of young people. After intensive negative press, the Vatican announced on August 25 that since he was no longer in their service, Wesolowski is not covered under diplomatic immunity and could potentially be extradited presumably to either his native Poland or the D.R. where he had been credibly accused of sexual abuse. There’s always more to a story than meets the eye, and in this case it isn’t pretty.

Major pressure came from a lengthy Sunday New York Times piece in which respected religion writer Laurie Goodstein offered grisly details of allegations of pedophilia against Mr. Wesolowski during his tenure in Santo Domingo. I’m hard pressed to recall a case as brazen and heinous.

Apparently this fellow regularly had a few drinks by the waterfront in the afternoon and then invited a shoeshine boy or other young man in need of money to accompany him to a secluded spot for sex. Though wealthier than its island neighbor Haiti, the Dominican Republic is a place where these kids make a few dollars for a day’s work. The clergyman, on the other hand, was probably paid in Euros so he could well afford to up the children’s wages geometrically in exchange for a little titillation.

It’s hard to imagine anyone defending the man’s behavior if even a fraction of what’s being reported is true. One victim was a boy with epilepsy, for example; Ms. Goodstein cites, on good authority, that “the nuncio gave him medication for his condition in exchange for sexual acts.” Is there no moral cellar here?

This case unfortunately offers many insights into how the Roman world works. Vatican officials protest too much when they speak of a new approach, showing how seriously they take clergy sexual abuse. The Archbishop was “whisked away by the Vatican” so as to avoid trial in the venue where he’s alleged to have committed the crimes. That act reflected the same old same old approach to clergy sexual abuse under Pope Francis as under his predecessors until, as I read it, public pressure was simply too great. Kudos to the New York Times and other media outlets that will not let this case fade away.

I doubt sincerely that the clergy fellows will cut him loose for prosecution in other locations. They have already hedged their bets by saying that it is not clear that the new 2013 Vatican guidelines can be applied retroactively in this case. Problems of double jeopardy remain of course. In short, while the Vatican’s rhetoric is promising, the timing and expected next steps make clear that not much has changed at all. So far, the so-called punishment is an insult to Catholics everywhere.

“Reduction to the lay state,” Wesolowski’s fate thus far, is only a serious matter if you bank on clergy privilege. Goodness, most Catholics live in the lay state all of our lives and live to tell it. Only the notion that clergy are qualitatively different (read: better) than lay people makes being stripped of such titles bothersome. Of course it is hard to get a prestigious church job like a diplomatic post if you aren’t ordained, but that hardly compares with facing your abusers in court. Wesolowski’s will be the first Vatican trial for sexual abuse, yet still no date has been announced. Can we really expect that young boys will be flown in from the Dominican Republic to testify? Breath holders beware.

Three glaring matters beyond the hideousness of the crimes and reactions to them invite critical analysis.

First, what does a papal nuncio do in the Dominican Republic, or anywhere else for that matter? It’s not as though there’s a Vatican consulate handling visas, or reciprocal military and political policies to iron out. Supposedly this office of nuncio, dating to the 16th century, is the liaison between the Holy See (Vatican City State) and the local church. How odd that a Polish priest would be assigned to a Latin American country, though he had the same job in Bolivia before repairing to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and environs for another posting. All this leads me to wonder what could be done so readily in such disparate places. Conclusion: probably not much, and/or maybe more of the same. But let’s not go there.

It’s reported that in Santo Domingo Wesolowski was “a ceremonial dean of the international diplomatic corps here, convening an annual party in honor of the country’s president.” This may stem from the tradition that nuncios were sometimes seen as higher in rank than ambassadors. In any case, he was not a heavy hitter politically or theo-politically—perhaps just a good party host. I suspect he was like any number of career Vatican diplomats whose suave ways get them these cushy assignments but whose accountability to the larger church is nil. Hey, afternoons free for drinks and a little action, I bet there’s no trouble finding applicants for these jobs.

Second, who pays for this kind of busy work? This nuncio is reported to have had a “stately residence and access to a beach house.” I suppose it gets a little lonely rattling around the mansion, and God knows what went on in the beach house. But mostly this is one of those Catholic matters where following the money is the soundest approach. Mansions and beach houses are not free, so obviously Catholic money is keeping his successor in the style to which Wesolowski became accustomed. Multiply that by the number of countries where the Vatican has diplomatic relations.

I doubt these diplomatic men cook their own meals or wash their own cassocks, no matter how frugal Pope Francis may be. So somebody pays a lot of money to keep this genteel charade in motion. That “somebody” is rank and file Catholics who have little if any say about where their weekly contributions go. Spoiler alert: upwards of 5% of the weekly collection basket money goes to the diocese, and from there it’s anyone’s guess how much goes to Rome to finance the likes of these fellows.

Third, what are the local people in the Dominican Republic, especially the Archbishop’s victims, to do? What say did they have in who replaced the disgraced prelate? How do they know that their children are not still at risk? What precautions have been taken to prevent another priest with too much time on his hands and too much money to spend from engaging in similar activity? How will those who have been victimized get their day in court? Who will pay for their counseling? As the New York Times article concluded, the whole sordid tale gives Catholics pause about taking children to church at all.

The Vatican could have waived immunity and let Dominican (and presumably Polish) law take its course. It did not have to secret this man away before the news of his crimes hit. But it could, so it would, and it did. This latest twist about lifting immunity is meant to convince that they were really doing the right thing all along. It rings suspiciously hollow.

A certain slime factor hovers over this case—evil so deep and enduring that few people want to talk about it. The sheer number of victims and their willingness to come forward despite whatever stigma they might endure give this case special status. The colonialism alone is repulsive; the legal ramifications boggle the mind; and the religious implications for a very Catholic country are staggering. If this is how the new guidelines work with regard to sexual abuse victims, I say back to the drawing boards because no one wins and the children always lose.