VATICAN CITY: A former Vatican ambassador to the Dominican Republic has been placed under house arrest in the first case of criminal proceedings by the Holy See over the sexual abuse of children, a spokesman said Tuesday.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said Pope Francis had personally ordered swift action in the case of Polish former archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, who was convicted of sex abuse by a Church tribunal in June and defrocked pending further criminal proceedings.
Lombardi said the legal move was “the result of the pope’s express wish for a case this serious and sensitive to be dealt with without delay, with the necessary scrupulousness and full undertaking of responsibility on the part of the institutions which head up the Holy See.”
Italian news agency ANSA said Wesolowski was being held under house arrest in an apartment within the same building as the criminal court.
If the case goes to trial, it will be the first for sex abuse within the tiny city state.
Wesolowski’s defrocking came six months after the UN children’s rights watchdog highlighted his case as an example of the Vatican’s failure to take concrete actions to prove its commitment to stamp out the abuse of minors by priests.
The Vatican had been accused by some critics of attempting to protect Wesolowski from Dominican jurisdiction by recalling him to Rome.
Wesolowski, 65, had been ambassador to the Dominican Republic since 2008, but was recalled by Pope Francis last August following accusations of sexually abusing minors.
He was ordained in 1972 by then archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who later became pope John Paul II and was elevated to sainthood this year.
The late pontiff named Wesolowski the Vatican’s envoy to Bolivia. He was later posted to several Asian countries before being dispatched to the Dominican Republic in 2008 by then pope Benedict XVI.
Press reports last year linked him with another Polish priest, Wojciech Gil, accused of raping boys while serving on the Caribbean island.
The Church has faced a decade-long series of scandals over abuse by priests and lay officials, from Ireland to the United States and Australia.
It was fiercely condemned by the United Nations in January for failing to stamp out child abuse and allowing systematic cover-ups by simply moving around clergy suspected of raping or molesting children.
Francis has vowed to crack down on abuse in the Catholic Church, reiterating the zero-tolerance approach of his predecessor.
Last year he overhauled Vatican law, issuing a special decree declaring that sexual violence and sexual acts with children, child prostitution and child pornography were punishable by up to 12 years in prison.
In May he warned there were “no privileges” for bishops when it came to child sex crimes and likened sexual abuse to a “Satanic mass”.
At a UN hearing earlier this year, Vatican officials revealed that 3,420 abuse cases had been handled over the past decade by the Catholic Church’s Canon Law prosecutors.
As a result of these cases, 848 priests were defrocked while a further 2,572 were ordered to “live a life of prayer or penance”, for example in a monastery.
The Vatican says it receives around 600 claims against abusive priests every year, many dating back to the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.