Saturday, 11 July 2015

Vatican City - Trial of Józef Wesołowski

The trial has commenced within the Vatican of, former Archbishop Józef Wesołowski on charges of the sexual abuse of minors.  

The trial has aroused questions as to why such trials have not taken place before and why it is taking place in the Vatican rather than in the Dominican Republic where the offences are alleged to have occured.  A complicating factor also leading to questions is the fact that this is the second trial of Wesolowski to have taken place in the Vatican on the same allegations.  The following is an attempt to provide a simple explanation of the legal issues and systems involved

The reason why the trial is taking place in the Vatican rather than the Dominican Republic is the fact that Wesolowski was the Papal Nuncio in the Dominican Republic at the time of the alleged offences and therefore he is protected by Diplomatic Immunity in respect of any offences he may have committed there.

A Papal Nuncio is an ambassador sent by the Pope to a country which has diplomatic relations with the Holy See and therefore a Nununcio has the same rights and privileges as any othe Ambassador.  Diplomatic Immunity is an old concept but is currently covered internationally by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 which has been ratified by virtually every country in the world.  Under the Convention Diplomatic Immunity is unambiguously protected

Article 29:  The person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable. He shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. 

Article 31:  A diplomatic agent shall enjoy immunity from the criminal jurisdiction of the receiving State.

Therefore as a diplomat the normal rule is that Weslowski could neither be arrested, questioned nor prosecuted in the Dominican Republic regarding his alleged crimes.  However as a diplomat of the Holy See he is subject to the criminal law of the Vatican State and that criminal law extends to prosecuting him for offences committed abroad whilst acting as Nuncio.  Diplomatic Immunity protects a diplomat from the criminal law of the country he is sent to but it does not protect him from the criminal law of his own country which is why Weslowski is able to be prosecuted in the Vatican.  

Had Weslowski not been a Papal Nuncio but instead been an ordinary Bishop in the Dominican Republic then the question of Diplomatic Immunity would not have arisen and he could have been tried there, "Ordinary" Bishops, Cardinals etc who are not Papal Nuncios are not protected by Diplomatic Immunity.  On the same basis since they are not citizens of the Vatican State they are not be subject to the laws of the Vatican State except when they are physically there.  

The Investigation of the allegations against Weolowski will have been carried out by the Vatican Gendarmerie who are all former officers in one of the Italian Police Forces and who will follow standard Italian Police procedures.  The trial itself will similarly be conducted according to the rules of Italian criminal procedure which have been adopted by the Vatican since the Lateran Treaties of 1929.  The Judges in the case will be lay Judges trained in Italian civil law. If convicted Wesolowki can be sentenced to imprisonment and under exisiting agreements between Italy and the Vatican he could serve any prison sentence in an Italian prison.

The trial Wesolowski has already faced, was a separate trial under Catholic Canon Law which is a code that applies to Catholic Priests and Ecclesiastics throughout the World and which relates to whether they have broken the rules which apply to them as Priests.  An offence under Canon Law may well not be an offence under the Civil Law of the country in which it took place and the penalities under Canon Law are purely religious penalties.  In the case of Wesolowski the penalty imposed by the Canon Law trial was that he was stripped of his priestly status and laicised, in England often referred to as "being de-frocked".  

As already mentioned if  Wesolowski had not been a Nuncio and was not covered by Diplomatic Immunity he would have been dealt with by the criminal courts of the Dominican Republic and not the courts of the Vatican; however he would still have had to be dealt with separately under Canon Law to decide if he should be laicised 

There are therefore 2 separate trials because there are 2 separate legal systems involved.  There is the Vatican State legal system, which is specific to Wesolowski and the small number of priests and Ecclesistics who are Vatican State citizens, and there is the Canon law system which applies to all Catholic Priests everywhere


Anonymous said...

A couple of extra point to consider:

Diplomats, because they have access to state secrets, if they commit a criminal offence would have to be imprisoned in their own country.

As there are currently no prisoners in the Vatican (no gag intended), anyone imprisoned would effectively be in solitary confinement. This is why the Pope's butler was pardoned. However, as child molesters usually serve their sentences in exactly such circumstances, then this shouldn't be a problem in this case.

Neil, do you know if the Vatican would be in breach of any treaties if it did so?

richardhj said...

Thank you. That was very informative.