VATICAN CITY - The Vatican said Thursday it was cooperating with prosecutors in the Dominican Republic who are investigating its ambassador for alleged sexual abuse of teen-age boys, an explosive case that has raised legal questions about the Holy See's responsibilities when accused priests come from within its own ranks.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, denied the Vatican was trying to shield Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski by recalling him to Rome before Dominican prosecutors had announced their investigation.
The Holy See recalled Wesolowski on Aug. 21 and relieved him of his job as apostolic nuncio after the archbishop of Santo Domingo, Cardinal Nicolas de Jesus Lopez, told Pope Francis about the allegations in July.
Dominican prosecutors announced their investigation last week, largely in response to local media reports of allegations of sexual misconduct by Wesolowski, 65, as well as a friend and fellow Polish priest, who is also outside the country.
Dominican prosecutor Bolivar Sanchez has said he has interviewed seven boys between 13 and 18 years old as part of the investigation. He said three of them work on the streets of the capital of Santo Domingo while the remaining four live elsewhere. Local news media have said some of the youths shine shoes. Sanchez has described some of the teens' allegations as coherent.
Wesolowski is the highest-ranking Vatican official to be investigated for alleged sex abuse, and his case has raised questions about whether the Vatican, by removing Wesolowski from Dominican jurisdiction, had effectively placed its own church investigation ahead of that of authorities in the Caribbean nation.
In a statement Thursday, Lombardi said: "The recall of the ambassador is by no mean an effort to avoid taking responsibility for what might possibly be verified."
He said the Vatican in early September had told the Dominican ambassador to the Holy See that it would cooperate with Dominican authorities with whatever they might need.
The Vatican's own rules for conducting sex abuse investigations under church law calls for cooperation with civil authorities and reporting of abuse allegations to police where such laws require it. Those norms were crafted in the wake of the explosion of sex abuse cases in 2010, where thousands of people came forward in Europe, South America and elsewhere detailing abuse by priests who were never reported to police even though their bishops knew they were pedophiles.
Attorney General Francisco Dominguez Brito has said if the government finds any concrete evidence against Wesolowski, it would seek his extradition. He noted, however, that the Dominican Republic has no extradition agreement with the Vatican.
As a Vatican ambassador, Wesolowski would enjoy diplomatic immunity, but it is unclear if the Vatican would invoke it in this case.
In addition to the jurisdiction issue, the Wesolowski case is important for other legal reasons: The Vatican has long managed to fend off civil lawsuits in the U.S. seeking to hold it liable for the conduct of abusive priests or negligent bishops who moved pedophiles around from parish to parish rather than report them to police. It has done so by successfully arguing that neither priests nor bishops are Vatican employees, and that the Holy See therefore cannot be held liable for their criminal conduct.
The case of Wesolowski is different since he is most certainly a Vatican employee, the pope's own personal envoy to the Dominican Republic.
Pope Francis has instructed the Vatican to continue its tough line against sexually abusive priests, instructing the head of the Vatican office that handles abuse cases to act "decisively" to protect children, help victims and take the necessary measures to punish the guilty.
Francis in July also signed off on legislation criminalizing child sex abuse and other sexual crimes, with punishments ranging up to more than a decade in prison -- laws that apply to Vatican employees as well as diplomatic staff. Those new laws, however, can't be applied retroactively in this case, officials say.
Rather, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is handling the Wesolowski investigation under the Catholic Church's canon law, which doesn't provide for prison time for guilty verdicts but rather canonical sanctions, which can range from being removed from public ministry to being defrocked.
Wesolowski's whereabouts are unknown and it's unclear if he has retained a lawyer.