The Vatican on Friday defrocked its former ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, for sexually abusing boys. It's the first time a top papal envoy has been convicted of the crime and signals that Pope Francis is serious about "zero tolerance" in the church for abuse, regardless of rank.
The Vatican said that Wesolowski was found guilty by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and sentenced to the harshest penalty possible against a cleric under canon law: laicization, meaning he may no longer perform priestly duties or present himself as a priest.
He has two months to appeal his dismissal. After the canonical case is finished, he faces a criminal trial in a Vatican City State tribunal, which could carry a jail term if he is convicted.
As a papal diplomat and citizen of Vatican City, Wesolowski faces criminal charges there. The tiny nation recently updated its laws to criminalize sexual abuse of children, but it is not clear, if the new code may be applied retroactively.
The Vatican said it would take "adequate measures" to ensure he doesn't flee pending the outcome of the criminal investigation.
The Vatican has not said how Wesolowski responded to the charges and hasn't provided contact information for his lawyer.
The case against him has been closely watched, given the grave nature of the charges. It has been a test of Francis' willingness to sanction even a high-ranking Vatican official for a crime the Holy See has long sought to blame on wayward priests, not direct representatives of the pope.
Francis has told reporters, though, "there were no privileges" for anyone who violated a child and promised "zero tolerance" for abuse at all levels.
The Holy See recalled the Polish-born Wesolowski on Aug. 21 and relieved him of his job after the archbishop of Santo Domingo told Francis about rumors that Wesolowski had sexually abused teenage boys in the Dominican Republic. Prosecutors there say he allegedly paid boys to masturbate.
Dominican authorities opened an investigation but never charged him, on the grounds that he had diplomatic immunity. Poland opened an investigation too.
On Friday the Dominican prosecutor general, Francisco Domínguez Brito, expressed satisfaction with the canonical verdict.
"This decision paves the way for a penal sentence, which should condemn him," he said.
Dominican President Danilo Medina said Francis told him during an audience at the Vatican that Wesolowski would be sanctioned with the toughest penalty available.
Polish prosecutor Katarzyna Calow-Jaszewska said the conviction "doesn't change the situation in our proceedings for the time being."
Wesolowski's case initially raised questions about whether the Vatican, by extracting him from Dominican jurisdiction, was protecting him and placing its own investigation ahead of the Caribbean nation's.
The case was cited by two U.N. committees that grilled the Vatican earlier this year on its sex abuse record. But Vatican officials assured committee members that justice would be served.
His case has been particularly delicate because Wesolowski was ordained as both a priest and a bishop by Pope John Paul II, a fellow Pole.
The Associated Press