Shock Waves in Rome

The house arrest of the former nuncio, Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, on Sept. 23, sent tremors through the ecclesiastical establishment in the Vatican and worldwide.

Never before in the history of the Vatican City State had a senior archbishop been arrested for the sexual abuse of minors and possession of a considerable quantity of pornographic material involving minors. The Vatican could arrest him because he was a Holy See diplomat and a citizen of the Vatican when he allegedly committed the crimes.

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The fact that his arrest was carried out with the pope’s approval sent a powerful message to the universal church and the wider world that a policy of zero tolerance is being pursued under this pontificate for those who sexually abuse minors and for those who give perpetrators of such abuse cover or protection.

That policy regarding those who give cover or protection was highlighted on Sept. 25 by the removal of the bishop of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, Rogelio Livieres Plano, a member of Opus Dei. He not only formally accepted into his diocese an Argentine priest accused of sexual misconduct with minors in the United States, but did so against the advice of the bishop of Scranton and later promoted him to vicar general. These actions, and the fact that Bishop Livieres Plano has long been a divisive figure in the bishops’ conference, led the pope to remove him.

On the flight back from Tel Aviv on May 26, when Pope Francis was asked what he would do with bishops who do not abide by the new Vatican regulations in this field, he recalled that in Argentina, those “who get special treatment” are called “Daddy’s boys”; but in the church “as far as this problem is concerned...there is no special treatment,” and “on this issue we need to keep moving forward: zero tolerance!”

He made clear then and again on July 7, when he met six abuse survivors, that the age of immunity and impunity in the Catholic Church is over. Those responsible for the abuse of minors or for protecting perpetrators or covering up their crimes will be punished. This cleanup operation is well under way. Started under Benedict XVI, it is picking up strong momentum under Francis, who is above all a man of action. Sources say Francis intervened directly to speed up the judicial process in the case of the nuncio.

“The arrest of Archbishop Wesolowski is a strong and unequivocal political choice of Francis,” the Italian Cardinal Velasio de Paolis stated. A member of the Vatican’s Court of Cassation who oversaw the renewal of the Legionaries of Christ, he described the arrest as “an act without precedent,” which is both “punitive and exemplary for the common good.”

Cardinal Walter Kasper described it as “a change of paradigm.” He recalled that there was a time when priests “were protected”; but now, he said, “we are looking at the whole problem from the viewpoint of the victims and not from that of the church as institution” and “its image.” This is “something new,” he told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding that “the pope’s line is clear; he cannot stop now, and certainly not in the case of a bishop. The church has need of purification and renewal.”

The Wesolowski case is still under investigation and could bring further developments. The Italian media say investigations are being conducted in all countries where he served as a diplomat, and there are suggestions (unconfirmed) that he might have had links to an international pedophile network, with protection in high places. A Polish priest who was with him for a time in the Dominican Republic has been arrested in Poland for the abuse of minors.

On the plane from Tel Aviv, Pope Francis said three bishops were under investigation for such crimes. It is presumed that Wesolowski was one of them. Vatican and other sources say a number of bishops in some countries have covered up cases of abuse, and they cannot expect to be ignored. On July 7 Francis told survivors, “All bishops must carry out their pastoral ministry with the utmost care in order to help foster the protection of minors, and they will be held accountable.” Right now Francis’ clean-up is a work in progress. Stand by for further developments.

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