Pope Francis shows iron fist as bishop’s sexual abuse trial begins
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Pope Francis shows iron fist as bishop’s sexual abuse trial begins

On Sunday, June 11, an unprecedented trial begins at the Vatican, where Józef Wesolowski, a former archbishop and papal envoy to the Dominican Republic, will face charges for abusing minors and coordinating an international network of pedophiles.

The case dates back to the summer of 2013, when a TV documentary produced by renowned Dominican investigative journalist Nuria Piera portrayed Wesołowski, then the Vatican’s nuncio to Santo Domingo for five years, as a protagonist of a major child molesting scandal. Several of his alleged victims found the courage to speak in front of the camera, confessing the details of the cleric’s tactics and methods for leading them into sexual encounters.

“He would be giving us a 10-euro note for every time we went with him to his beach bungalow,” one said. “He would never, however, take just one of us. There would always be four or five at the same time. He preferred to have a larger crowd around him.”

Following the documentary’s premiere and a letter from his former associate, Francisco Javier Occis, a police investigation was launched against the 66-year-old Polish priest. An on-site inspection of his office in Santo Domingo’s archdiocese palace uncovered more than 130 video files and nearly 86,000 photos containing child pornography on his personal computer and hard drives.

Further evidence emerged after a careful examination of his online activities. Wesolowski — who, prior to his diplomatic deployment to the Caribbean republic, served on similar placements in Bolivia, Kazakhstan and numerous other Central Asian countries — appeared to have coordinated an international network of pedophiles, spanning various types of sexual activities in several different places.

For instance, Wesolowski visited the German city of Frankfurt three times over the years 2011-2013, each time labeling his trip as a “pastoral affairs deputation.”

In reality, however, Wesolowski traveled there to meet with previously arranged middlemen, with whom he frequently communicated via email and on-line forums. His partners in crime were responsible for providing him access to a number of minors. According to testimony, they were subsequently led by the Polish cleric into intimate sexual intercourse and asked to “embrace each other” as the bishop filmed them with his own mobile phone.

The response from Pope Francis was unexpectedly vigorous — Wesolowski was first suspended from his duties as nuncio, and later expelled from the clergy in June 2014 and deprived of his diplomatic immunity three months later. Now, having spent several months under house arrest in Vatican, he will be the first ever former diplomatic envoy of the Pope to face a high-profile criminal trial. Such a trial became possible only recently, when a special Tribunal for sexual crimes committed by Catholic priests was established at the Holy See.

The proceedings will officially commence on July 11 with the first hearing open to the public; however, as leaks from the Vatican suggest, the following sessions are likely to be held behind closed doors.

The charges brought against the former Polish archbishop, as well as the fact he will be tried under criminal procedure, not within the jurisdiction of the canon law, clearly demonstrate a major shift in the Church’s attitude toward sexual abuse scandals within its ranks. Ever since the inauguration of his pontificate, Pope Francis has repeatedly declared his willingness to put to an end to the Church’s lomg silence on child molestation cases.

Words were transformed into action once a special Cardinal Council, known among the media as the “K9” (referring to its nine members in the rank of cardinals) was established in order to coordinate a set of major program reforms, aimed at a wider opening of the Church toward traditionally marginalized issues and groups, such as homosexual or divorced individuals.

Nonetheless, although major advancements have been made, the most crucial ones may be much harder to implement. The Council is rumored to be facing enormous resistance to its reforms, mostly from older, high-profile Vatican servants determined to maintain the status quo.

The details of the proceedings against Wesolowski remain undisclosed and it is unknown when a final ruling could be expected. According to the provisions of Vatican criminal code, if found guilty, he could face up to seven years in prison.

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