MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
In a first, the Vatican has arrested one of its own on child sex abuse charges. A former archbishop and Vatican diplomat has been placed under house arrest awaiting trial. He's accused of abusing boys in the Dominican Republic, where he served as Vatican ambassador until he was recalled last year.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us to talk more about the case. And first, Sylvia, tell us more about this former Vatican ambassador who's now been charged.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: He is 66-year-old Pole Jozef Wesolowski. He was ordained by the late John Paul II when he was archbishop of Krakow and he served as envoy to the Dominican Republic for five years.
BLOCK: And there have been stories about this alleged abuse that have surfaced recently. Did the arrest come as a surprise?
POGGIOLI: Well, actually, yes. Very quietly, the Vatican recalled Wesolowski from the Dominican Republic in August last year, after Pope Francis was informed about rumors that he had sexually abused teenage boys there. And local media was about to break the story. This year two United Nations human rights panels strongly criticized the Vatican for shielding the archbishop from Dominican jurisdiction. And then last June, the Vatican's top doctrinal office defrocked Wesolowski. The Vatican said he would face criminal charges so a trial was likely, but the arrest order was certainly a surprise.
BLOCK: And that trial, as I understand, will be a Vatican trial. When will that happen?
POGGIOLI: We don't know. The only source of information was a 14-line long Vatican statement yesterday evening. It said the former archbishop had been summoned by the Vatican's promoter of justice - that's the prosecutor - who informed Wesolowski that he has been indicted for serious acts of abuse of minors in the Dominican Republic and that the gravity of charges prompted a restrictive measure. For medical reasons, it's house arrest within the walls of the Vatican City State.
And the statement concluded saying the initiative is the result of the expressed desire of the Pope. It's an unprecedented move at the Vatican and several commentators today said it's a concrete example of Pope Francis's vow of zero tolerance, although some victim groups are skeptical and they're waiting to see how the case develops.
BLOCK: And is it still possible that this defrocked archbishop could be extradited to the Dominican Republic?
POGGIOLI: Well, that's also not clear. When he was defrocked, the Vatican said Wesolowski had lost his diplomatic immunity so there was the theoretical possibility. Now prosecutors in Poland, his native country, have also opened an investigation. And according to the Vatican penal code, which Pope Francis revised last year for the crime of pedophilia, Wesolowski could face up to 12 years in jail. What's not clear is where because the Vatican does not have more than a few small detention cells. It could be an Italian prison.
But in any case, something is definitely changing. In May, Francis told reporters there would be no preferential treatment for those he called daddy's boys. And that was a big change from the early years after the sex abuse scandal erupted in the United States, when many Vatican officials insisted it was a purely American problem, alien to the universal church. Well, they can't say that anymore, when a former archbishop becomes the first high-ranking Holy See official to face criminal charges of pedophilia inside the Vatican City State.
BLOCK: OK. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. Thanks so much.
POGGIOLI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.