The case of Marko Rupnik, a high-profile Jesuit priest and artist, threatens the legacy that Pope Francis has built when it comes to tackling the scourge of clerical sexual abuse.
Rupnik has been accused of sexual, spiritual and psychological abuse against consecrated women. Fr Arturo Sosa, the superior of the Jesuit order to which the Pope belongs, told reporters that Rupnik was temporarily excommunicated in 2019 after he absolved a woman who he had been sexually involved with—one of the most serious Church crimes and forms of spiritual abuse. In 2021, a separate complaint was made against Rupnik but was not pursued due to the statute of limitations expiring. Both the excommunication and the decision not to prosecute were handled by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. Following the excommunication, the Jesuits placed Rupnik under restrictions, banning him from hearing confessions and offering spiritual directions.
But the Slovenian Jesuit had influence and connections, including inside the doctrine dicastery. He has been a hugely popular Church artist whose mosaics decorate the Redemptoris Mater chapel in the Vatican’s apostolic palace, the basilica in Lourdes, France and the St John Paul II shrine in Washington, D.C. At this blog’s own institution, Sacred Heart University, he designed the mosaic in the chapel. He recently designed the logo for the 2022 Vatican’s World Meeting of Families.
All this means that how his case was handled is a stress test for the Church’s anti-abuse measures. Three things need to be looked at.
The first is the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, one of two offices in the Church’s central government that are on the front line of tackling abuse. The dicastery prosecutes cases of clerics accused of abuse but is far from transparent in how it goes about its work. In the case of Rupnik, the dicastery has remained silent on why he was not prosecuted, given that there have been plenty of times when the statute of limitations has been waived. What role did Archbishop Giacomo Morandi, the former secretary at the dicastery, play in the case? Archbishop Morandi was reportedly close to Rupnik and lived in the same Jesuit community as Rupnik. While the Jesuits have revealed what they knew about the case, the doctrine office’s silence is wrong and harmful.
The second is the Pope’s commission for the protection of minors, which should act as the equivalent of a diocesan safeguarding office inside the Holy See. Under the reforms of the Roman Curia, it has been placed within the structure of the doctrine dicastery. Some question the wisdom of this given the need for an independent body inside the Vatican to ensure safeguarding standards are being met. The Pope has also insisted that the commission remains independent. But three former commission members, including Baroness Sheila Hollins, have now gone public voicing their concern about the commission’s strategy and leadership. They are worried that the commission is drifting from its core purpose of ensuring best practices are followed in safeguarding. The commission insists that it does not comment on individual cases. Still, it is in danger of being seen as missing in action during the latest phase of the abuse crisis, now squarely on how the hierarchy handles cases.
Thirdly is a need for the Church to be more proactive when it comes to allegations of abuse of adults, particularly religious women. While the Rupnik case did not involve minors, it involved “#metoo” abuse that had a grave spiritual dimension. If the Jesuits had explained that Rupnik had been placed under specific measures and put the information into the public domain, it would have prevented the scandal from erupting. Given the seriousness of absolving an accomplice in the confessional, Rupnik also seems to have been treated leniently, suggesting that what took place could be excused as taking place between consenting adults. While Canon Law has expanded the definition of abuse to include “vulnerable adults,” abuse of power between adults must be better recognized.
Finally, this case points to the growing weaponization of abuse for ecclesial-political purposes. Notably, highly sensitive details about the Rupnik matter were leaked to at least two online publications hostile to the Francis pontificate. The leaking of this material could only have come from the inside with the ultimate goal of trying to damage the Pope. It points to the deep resistance to Francis from inside the Church. There are likely other Rupnik cases, but they may not suit the anti-Francis agenda, so they will likely stay under the radar.
In this highly charged atmosphere, it is vital to ensure all cases of abuse are handled in a rigorous, independent and proactive manner.
Christopher Lamb is Vatican Correspondent for The Tablet and author of The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church.