ROME – Former Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, who would have been the first high-level prelate to stand before a Vatican tribunal on charges of child sexual abuse, was found dead early Friday, the Vatican said in a statement.
Initial examinations carried out by Vatican officials “determined that his death occurred from natural causes,” the statement said.
Mr. Wesolowski died in his Vatican City residence, where he had lived since September, after he was placed under house arrest. He was found by one of the Franciscan friars who lived in the same house, said a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini.
An autopsy was being conducted Friday morning, Father Benedettini said.
Vatican prosecutors had accused Mr. Wesolowski, 67, of sexually abusing children in the Dominican Republic, where he was stationed from 2008 to 2013 as the Vatican’s ambassador. Already defrocked under canon law in 2014, Mr. Wesolowski was facing a prison sentence of up to eight years if found guilty.
His trial, which began on July 11, would have been the first case of sexual abuse argued out in a Vatican tribunal, and it became emblematic of Pope Francis’ proactive approach to dealing with the child sexual abuse accusations that have plagued the Roman Catholic Church in recent decades.
At the first hearing, which lasted less than 10 minutes, the Vatican’s chief prosecutor, Gian Piero Milano, argued that Mr. Wesolowski had caused serious psychological distress and harm to the youths, said to be ages 13 to 16. He was also accused of having offended “Christian morality” by repeatedly logging onto pornographic sites involving minors in the Dominican Republic and Vatican City.
The trial was unexpectedly adjourned that same day because Mr. Wesolowski had been admitted to an intensive care unit in an Italian hospital for an “unexpected illness” the day before. No new date had been set for its resumption.
Francis is not the first pope to have addressed the issue of sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy, but he has drafted new rules giving prosecutors more leeway in the cases, allowing criminal charges to be applied to Vatican employees anywhere. He is also the first pope to take action against superiors accused of covering up for priests.
Because of his health, Mr. Wesolowski was effectively incarcerated inside Vatican City, although he was allowed to move around the grounds freely, Father Benedettini said.
This week, the advocacy group BishopAccountability.org raised concerns that “this loosening of restrictions raises urgent child safety concerns.” It called for Mr. Wesolowski to be “heavily guarded at all times,” otherwise “unaccompanied minors in Vatican City could be at risk,” the group said in a statement.