Vatican trial of former nuncio opened, then postponed

Vatican trial of Józef Wesołowski starting on 11 July is pivotal to Pope Francis’ papacy treatment of child abuse by clergy

The Vatican City State trial of former Archbishop Józef Wesołowski, papal nuncio for the Dominican Republic, was due to commence today, 11 July 2015, exactly two years after Pope Francis issued the first Motu proprio of his papacy, “On the Jurisdiction of Judicial Authorities of Vatican City State in Criminal Matters”, which is reproduced below. The implications of the Motu proprio were outlined in an accompanying presentation by the Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, and in further detail in the communiqué of the Holy See Press Office.

New legislation

The communiqué explained that the Motu proprio makes the criminal laws adopted by the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State applicable also within the Holy See. In addition, the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State adopted complementary legislation[1]. Together they are

“a continuation of the efforts to update Vatican City State’s legal system, building upon the measures adopted since 2010 during the pontificate of Benedict XVI … [but] have a broader scope, since they incorporate into the Vatican legal system the provisions of numerous international conventions”.

These include the 1989 UN Convention on the rights of the child and its optional protocols of 2000, for which the new legislation introduces a broader definition of the category of crimes against minors (including: the sale of children, child prostitution, the recruitment of children, sexual violence and sexual acts with children, and the production and possession of child pornography).

In addition to these measures, on 8 June Pope Francis approved proposals for a new system which will hold to account bishops who fail to act on clerical abuse. This gives power to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to judge bishops “with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors”. In addition, the proposals included the establishment of a new office at the Congregation to take on work as a tribunal in the judgment of bishops who fail to act on abuse. Whilst the Pope still has the ultimate say in requesting a bishop’s resignation, a Vatican spokesman indicated that the tribunal’s findings would normally be accepted and acted upon by the Pope.

Coincidentally, the announcement of Wesolowski’s trial on 15 June came on the same day the Vatican announced the resignations of St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché, according to Canon 401 §2 (CIC). As we have noted, the reasons for resignation under Canon 401 §2 are not specified, but article on Vatican Insider, (reproduced from America magazine) indicates that “the ‘grave reason’ for which the archbishop and auxiliary bishop handed in – or were asked to hand in – their resignation existed when [civil Prosecutors], on June 5, charged the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis over its handling of clergy abuse claims.” On June 5, the archdiocese was charged with several criminal counts by public authorities “for its failure to protect children.”

Prior action against Józef Wesołowski

The action to date against Józef Wesołowski is summarized by John L. Allen Jr. in  Crux :

“Wesołowski served as a papal diplomat in a variety of nations in the late 1990s and 2000s, eventually being named the nuncio, or ambassador, to the Dominican Republic in 2008, holding the rank of archbishop for papal envoys. He resigned as the nuncio to the Dominican Republic in 2013 amid allegations of child abuse, including charges that he was in the habit of picking up underage ‘shoeshine boys’ in Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital, and paying them for sexual acts.

Wesołowski was recalled to Rome in August 2013 and faced an internal ecclesiastical probe, [i.e. under canon law], which led to his being laicized, or removed from the priesthood, in June 2014. In itself, laicization is a rare step for a bishop, and a clear signal the Vatican believes the charges against him have merit.”

Neil Addison’s post Vatican City – Trial of Józef Wesołowski explains the complexities introduced as a consequence of Wesołowski’s diplomatic status and his Vatican citizenship, and the interrelation of civil and ecclesiastical law.

Since Wesołowski was holding a Vatican passport at the time of the alleged crimes, the Vatican states that he must first face sanctions under the Vatican’s own criminal law  before any extradition to Dominican Republic to face criminal charges. However, in addition to his conduct in the Dominican Republic, Wesołowski faces charges related to pornographic images reportedly discovered on a personal computer while living in Rome after his recall.


The hearing will be before the Vatican criminal tribunal headed by a lay jurist, Giuseppe Dalla Torre, professor of law at the University of Bologna.  If the initial procedure results in a conviction there is the possibility of an appeal to a three-judge tribunal and ultimately to a Corte di Cassazione, or Supreme Court. Allen notes that, if convicted, Wesołowski could face a sentence of six or seven years in prison on each count as well as a substantial fine. Imprisonment could be in a Vatican facility, although it has been customary for lengthy sentences to be served in an Italian prison.

It is expected that the findings of the hearing will be announced early in 2016.


This morning, the following statement was issued by Il Bollettino:

“This morning, at 9.30, at the Vatican City State Tribunal, the first hearing took place in the criminal trial of the ex-nuncio to the Dominican Republic Józef Wesołowski, indicted for the crime of possession of child pornography and for paedophile acts.

The panel of judges is composed of Professor Giuseppe Dalla Torre, president; Professor Piero Antonio Bonnet; Professor Paolo Papanti-Pellettier; and Professor Venerando Marano, substitute.

The promoter of Justice is Professor Gian Piero Milano, assisted by Professor Alessandro Diddi and Professor Roberto Zannotti. The defence counsel is Antonello Blasi.

At the opening of the trial the promoter of Justice announced that the defendant was not present in court as he has been admitted to hospital.

The Court took due note of the impediment to the presence of the defendant, following the onset of an unexpected illness necessitating his transfer to a public hospital where he is currently in the intensive care unit.

In accordance with Article 471 c.p.p. the Tribunal suspended the trial and postponed it until a later date, awaiting the termination of the cause that has given rise to the postponement.”


In our times, the common good is increasingly threatened by transnational organized crime, the improper use of the markets and of the economy, as well as by terrorism.

It is therefore necessary for the international community to adopt adequate legal instruments to prevent and counter criminal activities, by promoting international judicial cooperation on criminal matters.

In ratifying numerous international conventions in these areas, and acting also on behalf of Vatican City State, the Holy See has constantly maintained that such agreements are effective means to prevent criminal activities that threaten human dignity, the common good and peace.

With a view to renewing the Apostolic See’s commitment to cooperate to these ends, by means of this Apostolic Letter issued Motu Proprio, I establish that:

1. The competent Judicial Authorities of Vatican City State shall also exercise penal jurisdiction over:

a) crimes committed against the security, the fundamental interests or the patrimony of the Holy See;

b) crimes referred to: – in Vatican City State Law No. VIII, of 11 July 2013, containing Supplementary Norms on Criminal Law Matters; – in Vatican City State Law No. IX, of 11 July 2013, containing Amendments to the Criminal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code; when such crimes are committed by the persons referred to in paragraph 3 below, in the exercise of their functions;

c) any other crime whose prosecution is required by an international agreement ratified by the Holy See, if the perpetrator is physically present in the territory of Vatican City State and has not been extradited.

The crimes referred to in paragraph 1 are to be judged pursuant to the criminal law in force in Vatican City State at the time of their commission, without prejudice to the general principles of the legal system on the temporal application of criminal laws.

2. For the purposes of Vatican criminal law, the following persons are deemed “public officials”:

a) members, officials and personnel of the various organs of the Roman Curia and of the Institutions connected to it.

b) papal legates and diplomatic personnel of the Holy See.

c) those persons who serve as representatives, managers or directors, as well as persons who even de facto manage or exercise control over the entities directly dependent on the Holy See and listed in the registry of canonical juridical persons kept by the Governorate of Vatican City State;

d) any other person holding an administrative or judicial mandate in the Holy See, permanent or temporary, paid or unpaid, irrespective of that person’s seniority.

3. The jurisdiction referred to in paragraph 1 comprises also the administrative liability of juridical persons arising from crimes, as regulated by Vatican City State laws.

4. When the same matters are prosecuted in other States, the provisions in force in Vatican City State on concurrent jurisdiction shall apply.

5. The content of article 23 of Law No. CXIX of 21 November 1987, which approves the Judicial Order of Vatican City State remains in force.

This I decide and establish, anything to the contrary notwithstanding. I establish that this Apostolic Letter issued Motu Proprio will be promulgated by its publication in L’Osservatore Romano, entering into force on 1 September 2013.

Given in Rome, at the Apostolic Palace, on 11 July 2013, the first of my Pontificate. I establish that this Apostolic Letter issued Motu Proprio will be promulgated by its publication in L’Osservatore Romano, entering into force on 1 September 2013.


[1] Law No. VIII containing Supplementary Norms on Criminal Law Matters; Law No. IX containing Amendments to the Criminal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code; and Law No. X containing General Provisions on Administrative Sanctions.


Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Vatican trial of former nuncio opened, then postponed" in Law & Religion UK, 11 July 2015,

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