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Vatican Arrests Former Archbishop On Child Abuse Charges


Vatican City, the home of the Catholic Church, is also a tiny, independent nation with its own laws. And today, one of its citizens is under house arrest. The Vatican took former Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski into custody. He had already been defrocked in June. All of this follows allegations that he sexually abused young boys while he was the Vatican's ambassador to the Dominican Republic. He's going to stand trial on a Vatican criminal court. Joshua McElwee, who is Vatican bureau chief for The National Catholic Reporter, is covering this story. Welcome to the program, sir.

JOSHUA MCELWEE: Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: What made the Vatican act now?

MCELWEE: Well, the Vatican had acted a couple months ago. What they'd done is they laicized Wesolowski, who was an archbishop, which basically made him a normal Catholic. He's no longer a priest. He's no longer an archbishop. And now they're saying that they're prosecuting him according to the laws of the Vatican City State for, apparently, accusations of abuse in the Dominican Republic.

INSKEEP: How long ago did that abuse take place, allegedly?

MCELWEE: It's not clear. Unlike a U.S. court, where there might be reporters in the room hearing the accusations or there might be an easy way to follow the process, what happens here is the Vatican issues releases telling us what has happened. But there's been no one in the room to kind of say, well, here's been the facts of evidence; here's been what's going on. But there's been reports in the Dominican Republic, dating back several years, that he was doing inappropriate things with children of quite young ages.

INSKEEP: Why isn't he being tried in the Dominican Republic, then?

MCELWEE: That's a pivotal question. Many people are asking, since they've now basically taken away his status as an archbishop, as a priest and his diplomatic immunity, it makes sense that the Dominican Republic might ask for him to be extradited there, to face the charges there, to meet the victims and to hear their allegations against him. Also, Poland is apparently making similar requests, saying Wesolowski is a Polish native, and he should also be tried in Poland.

INSKEEP: What, if anything, has Pope Francis said about all this?

MCELWEE: I'm not aware of the Pope making any statement on the case. When he was coming back from the papal trip to the Holy Land, he gave an interview on the papal plane. You know, he wanted to say very clearly that sex abuse of minors was crime and a tragedy. But it's not an issue that he's spoken up about at length. He met with the abuse victims for the first time as pope just a couple months ago at the help of Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley. But it's something abuse victims are calling him to do more frequently or speak out about more frequently. But at the same time, he's created a new commission inside the Vatican for the protection of minors, which is being led by Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley as well.

INSKEEP: What does this particular case mean for the Catholic Church as it tries to get beyond, in some fashion, this ongoing scandal having to do with sexual abuse of minors?

MCELWEE: I think the case shows the reach of the Catholic Church around the world. In Rome, you sometimes hear that some bishops or some officials might say the problem of sexual abuse of minors is a problem only in certain areas of the world. Some even have said it's only an American problem; it hasn't risen up in other places. But when you look at something like this, I think it puts an onus on the Church and on Pope Francis to recognize that, you know, this is a problem, not just in one country or in one part of the world, but for the Church and all around the world.

INSKEEP: There are organized victims groups, of course, at this point - people who've been affected by these sex abuse scandals. What are they saying about this decision to put the man on trial at the Vatican?

MCELWEE: Well, the major group in the U.S. is the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. And they issued a statement yesterday basically saying that they were kind of waiting and seeing. They're not quite sure what's going on, like everyone else. But at the same time, they said that if this former archbishop is accused and has victims who wish to bring him to court in the Dominican Republic, the question is, you know, is that going to happen? And are those victims going to have an opportunity to hold him to account in their own country?

INSKEEP: Joshua McElwee is Vatican correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter. Thanks very much.

MCELWEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.