Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

On transparency in handling abuse charges, Vatican is facing a big test

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 11, 2014

Reacting vigorously to a nasty public attack by a hostile UN committee, Vatican officials have repeated that the Holy See has nothing to hide on the issue of sexual abuse. That’s good to hear. But after a decade of scandal, a skeptical world wants to see action to back up those words.

The Vatican argues, reasonably enough, that the Holy See can’t be held responsible for every crime committed by every priest anywhere in the world. Fair enough. Individual bishops are responsible for their own priests (and should be held accountable!), and local governments are responsible for prosecuting crimes. But how would the Vatican respond if the crimes were committed by a citizen of Vatican City, a representative of the Holy See?

That is not an academic question. It’s a test that has been presented to the Vatican, in the case of Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, the former apostolic nuncio to the Dominican Republic. Prosecutors in the Caribbean nation say that they have found clear evidence that the archbishop molested boys, and they have forwarded that evidence to the Vatican.

Vatican officials have said, several times, that they will cooperate completely with prosecutors in the Dominican Republic, and they only want to know the whole truth about the allegations against Archbishop Wesolowski. Good. But again, the world will want to see actions matching the public statements.

Right now Archbishop Wesolowski is living under the protection of the Vatican; his exact whereabouts have not been disclosed. The evidence against him was sufficient to persuade Pope Francis to pull him from his diplomatic assignment last year, and recall him to Rome. That was even before civil prosecutors in the Dominican Republic began their investigation; now they say that they have a strong case, too.

Vatican law does not allow for extradition, and that’s a good thing, in light of the many examples in history of repressive regimes that sought to prosecute Church leaders for spurious reasons. And of course if the charges against Archbishop Wesolowski are spurious, they should be exposed as such and his name should be cleared. But if the case against him is as strong as it appears, he should—must—go on trial.

If the trial takes place before a Vatican tribunal, so be it. But if there is no trial, and no clear public explanation, the Vatican’s promises of transparency will ring hollow.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: shrink - Feb. 12, 2014 3:17 PM ET USA

    "But if there is no trial... transparency will ring hollow." This is putting it very, very, delicately. No trial means no accountability, making it plausible to believe that Francis is not a serious man, or that he is powerless. Is the papacy a mere symbolic juridical office like the British crown? -- a position with some but not much, moral authority across the empire, but in the final analysis, an office with nil juridical authority.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Feb. 12, 2014 9:45 AM ET USA

    I know Wesolowski can be tried in the Vatican under a recent legal change that exposes its representatives to liability for actions in other places. That is not good enough given the miserable record of the Church in these matters to date. Instead, Wesolowski should be ordered to return to duties in the DR. They have the evidence and theirs is the grievance against him, so they, not the Vatican, should judge him. And any sentence he gets should be served there, not in some Vatican apartment.

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Feb. 11, 2014 8:55 PM ET USA

    I don't believe the hierarchy who shuffled around these perverts will ever permit transparency. The Church is still about saving face and the uncovering of the corrupt networks would shock the Faithful.