Defrocked diplomat may become first priest accused of sexual abuse to be tried at the Vatican

The world may be about to witness a first: the Vatican putting on trial one of its own officials for sexual abuse. On Monday a Vatican spokesman said church authorities are in the midst of figuring out what the procedure would even look like.

“This is history in the making and we must wait to see how this will develop,” said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, an English-language spokesman for the Vatican.

The case of Josef Wesolowski exploded earlier this summer when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the Vatican’s doctrine-enforcing arm — found the former ambassador to the Dominican Republic had sexually abused boys there and laicized, or defrocked, him. That was the first time someone officially representing the pope had been punished for sexual abuse. The Polish priest is appealing that decision.

On the criminal front, media reported that Dominican authorities never charged Wesolowski because he had diplomatic immunity. But that question reemerged this past weekend when the New York Times quoted legal experts in the Dominican Republic questioning why Wesolowski would not be forced to face his accusers locally. Wesolowski was recalled to Rome in the summer of 2013 before local officials could investigate there. Some advocates for clergy sex abuse survivors said the case is a test for Pope Francis’s claim of zero-tolerance and that Wesolowski should be imprisoned.

“We focus on what has NOT changed: the church hierarchy’s insistence on handling clergy sex crimes internally, ignoring cover-ups of those crimes, and rebuffing the independent and experienced professionals in law enforcement,” said David Clohessy, a spokesman for the group SNAP.

The Congregation, Rosica said, is to meet in October to consider Wesolowski’s appeal. If they continue with the priest’s defrocking, Wesolowski “might also be subjected to judicial procedures from the courts that could have specific jurisdiction over him,” read a statement from the Vatican press office.

What’s not clear yet, Rosica said, is who would have criminal jurisdiction — the Dominican Republic or the Vatican. And if it’s the Vatican, officials with the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith don’t yet have procedures for a trial of one of its own officials for sex abuse. This is the first time one of the Vatican’s own officials was found guilty of this crime, he said. He said it wasn’t known how the decision (to have or not have a trial) would be made and who would oversee it.

“We don’t know what that trial would look like. What we’re doing is developing a procedure here,” he said. “We’re all watching to see how this will happen.”

Rosica said the speed of Wesolowski’s defrocking shows a change at the Vatican. “They didn’t waste any time stripping him of his credentials,” he said.