SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — He was a familiar figure to the skinny shoeshine boys who work along the oceanfront promenade here. Wearing black track pants and a baseball cap pulled low over his balding head, they say, he would stroll along in the late afternoon and bring one of them down to the rocky shoreline or to a deserted monument for a local Catholic hero.
The boys say he gave them money to perform sexual acts. They called him “the Italian” because he spoke Spanish with an Italian accent.
It was only after he was suddenly spirited out of the country, the boys say, his picture splashed all over the news media, that they learned his identity: Archbishop Józef Wesolowski, the Vatican’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic.
“He definitely seduced me with money,” said Francis Aquino Aneury, who says he was 14 when the man he met shining shoes began offering him increasingly larger sums for sexual acts. “I felt very bad. I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do, but I needed the money.”
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The case is the first time that a top Vatican ambassador, or nuncio — who serves as a personal envoy of the pope — has been accused of sexual abuse of minors. It has sent shock waves through the Vatican and two predominantly Roman Catholic countries that have only begun to deal with clergy sexual abuse: the Dominican Republic and Poland, where Wesolowski was ordained by the Polish prelate who later became Pope John Paul II.
It has also created a test for Pope Francis, who has called child-sexual abuse “such an ugly crime” and pledged to move the Roman Catholic Church into an era of “zero tolerance.” For priests and bishops who have violated children, he said in May, “There are no privileges.”
Wesolowski has already faced the harshest penalty possible under the church’s canon law, short of excommunication: On June 27, he was defrocked by the Vatican, reducing him to the status of a layman.
The Vatican, which as a city state has its own judicial system, has also said it intends to try Wesolowski on criminal charges, the first time the Vatican has held a criminal trial for sexual abuse.
But far from settling the matter, the Vatican has stirred an outcry because it helped Wesolowski avoid criminal prosecution and a possible jail sentence in the Dominican Republic.
Acting against its own guidelines for handling abuse cases, the church failed to inform the local authorities of the evidence against him, secretly recalled him to Rome last year before he could be investigated and then invoked diplomatic immunity for Wesolowski so he could not face trial in the Dominican Republic.
The Vatican’s handling of the case illustrates both the changes the church has made in dealing with sexual abuse and what many critics call its failures. When it comes to removing pedophiles from the priesthood, the Vatican is moving more assertively and swiftly than before.
But as Wesolowski’s case suggests, the church continues to be reluctant to report people suspected of abuse to the local authorities and allow them to face justice in secular courts.
Used a decoy
Wesolowski, 66, was ordained at 23 in Krakow by Archbishop Karol Józef Wojtyla, who later became Pope John Paul II. In 1999, he was appointed papal nuncio to Bolivia, and in 2002, he was reassigned to Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
In 2008, he was sent to the Dominican Republic, where he served as a ceremonial dean of the international diplomatic corps. The posting came with a stately residence and access to a beach house.
On the waterfront, Wesolowski attempted to disguise his rank, the boys say. He drove a small SUV, they recalled, and parked it near the monument in the colonial zone, where several streets are named for archbishops.
One day last year, Nuria Piera, a prominent television journalist, received a tip that the papal nuncio drank beer many afternoons at a waterfront restaurant and then went off with boys.
Piera sent a video crew to surreptitiously film the nuncio, she said in an interview at CDN, where she is general director. The crew shot some video of Wesolowski drinking alone and walking the promenade, Piera said, but he noticed their presence (though not the camera), walked over, smacked his hand against their car and asked why they were following him.
After that, Piera said, he disappeared from the waterfront. Her tipster never saw him there again.
Wesolowski began sending a young Dominican church deacon to procure children for him, law-enforcement authorities in the Dominican Republic say.
The deacon, Francisco Javier Occi Reyes, was arrested by the police on June 24, 2013, accused of solicitation of minors and taken to jail. No one came to bail him out, and the deacon sent an anguished letter dated July 2 to Wesolowski.
“We have offended God” and the church, the letter said, by sexually abusing children and adolescents “for crumbs of money.”
“Hopefully you will consider asking for God to help you to walk away from this evil disease of continuing to sexually abuse innocent children,” the letter said.
The deacon sent copies of the letter to Cardinal Nicolas de Jesus López Rodriguez, head of the church in the Dominican Republic, and to a Dominican bishop, Gregorio Nicanor Peña Rodríguez.
The cardinal then carried the evidence to the Vatican, where he met with the pope, according to interviews with Dominican authorities. On Aug. 21 last year, Wesolowski was secretly recalled to Rome.
Six days later, the cardinal called the papal nuncio “a great friend and promoter of peace.”
Neither the cardinal, nor other church officials, reported the accusations to the local authorities, Dominican officials say. Vatican guidelines say criminal sexual-abuse accusations should be reported in countries where reporting is required.
The country’s attorney general, Francisco Domínguez Brito, and the district attorney of Santo Domingo, Yeni Berenice Reynoso Gómez, said in interviews that they first learned about the accusations against Wesolowski from Piera’s television reports, which were broadcast in early September and included a child asserting that he had been abused.
Reynoso said that her investigators had identified four children between 12 and 17 with whom the nuncio had sexual contact but that there were likely others.
The 17-year-old had epilepsy, and the nuncio gave him medicine for his condition in exchange for sexual acts, starting from when the boy was 13, the district attorney said. She said she had “no doubt” about the credibility of the youngsters’ testimony because it was corroborated by other evidence.
“This is the most terrible case that I have ever seen,” said Reynoso. “He was abusing kids who were living in extreme poverty, in exchange for pills for a boy’s illness. It’s very perverse.”
There are indications from Rome that the pope is concerned about the Wesolowski case. A Dominican bishop, Fausto Ramón Mejía, said in an interview that when he was part of a delegation visiting the Vatican late last year, Francis’ smile vanished on hearing what country he was from.
“He became very serious,” Mejía said. “He stopped and he said to me, very sincerely, ‘I feel as though my heart was crossed by a dagger from what took place in the Dominican Republic.’ ”
The case has shaken this stalwart Catholic nation. “The people used to say, ‘I want my child to go to a Catholic church,’” said the Rev. Rogelio Cruz, a priest here. “Now they say, ‘No child of mine is ever going to a Catholic church.’ ”