Fr. Marko Rupnik SJ. Credit: Diocese of Rome/YouTube.

Rupnik mosaics stand in US chapels, amid priest artist abuse scandal

The Pillar [Washington DC]

December 22, 2022

[Photo above: Fr. Marko Rupnik. Credit: Diocese of Rome/YouTube.]

What should happen to the art installed by Fr. Marko Rupnik in churches around the world?

While sexual abuse allegations against Fr. Marko Rupnik, S.J., continue to cause scandal, some Church leaders face a pressing question: What should be done with the mosaics Rupnik designed and created, which adorn churches and chapels in Europe, in the U.S., and in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican itself?

Rupnik is a well-known Slovenian priest, an artist, and a member of the Jesuit order, the Society of Jesus.

The priest is at the center of a multi-faceted sexual abuse and cover-up scandal. Rupnik has been accused of spiritually, psychologically, and sexually abusing consecrated women in a Slovenian religious community. He was also briefly excommunicated in 2020, for attempting to sacramentally absolve a woman after a sexual encounter with her, a major crime in the Church’s canon law.

As details have emerged in recent weeks, questions have been raised about whether the allegations against Rupnik were mishandled by the Vatican, the Society of Jesus, and by Pope Francis himself.

The Diocese of Versailles, France, announced last week that it would end its contract with Rupnik for the decoration of a parish church, in light of the allegations against the priest.

Rupnik was to be “responsible for the interior and exterior decoration of the new Saint-Joseph-le-Bienveillant church, the construction of which began several months ago,” the diocese said in a Dec. 16 statement.

“After consultation with the parish and diocesan teams in charge of this project … it was quickly discerned that these facts required us to break off all collaboration with Fr. Marko Rupnik,” the Versailles diocese added.

The diocese explained that “in making this decision, we must think first of all of the people who may have suffered from these abuses, and we pray first of all for them.”

But while one diocese has ended its contract with Rupnik, the priest’s art remains on the walls of sacred spaces around the world; Mass and confessions continue to be offered under Biblical scenes crafted by Rupnik.

For Gina Barthel, a clerical abuse survivor from Minnesota, that should change, and soon.

“Rupnik has been found guilty of a canonical crime that violated the holiness of confession and violated the sixth commandment. And because of that, I think his artwork should be removed, as a testimony to the entire Church, and as a witness, that there are consequences to perpetrating abuse,” Barthel told The Pillar Wednesday.

“There is a difference between clergy who have been accused and clergy who have been found guilty. And he is accused of some really terrible things, but he has also already been found guilty of a serious and disturbing canonical crime. So it should come down.”

Removing the art “would stand as a beautiful testimony and witness to the entire Church, and it would have a profound impact for survivors of abuse,” Barthel added.

Fr. Patrick Mary Briscoe, O.P., editor of Our Sunday Visitor, took a more circumspect approach in a column last week. While the priest wrote that he initially hoped the art would come down, he said he realized that “the good of art is in the work of art itself.”

While Briscoe argued that Rupnik should face consequences for his alleged crimes, the priest urged a different approach to his mosaics:

“As for his art, we must recall the purpose of art in a sacred space. Art in our churches renders visible the invisible beauty of the sacred mysteries…If one believes that the works themselves are worthy to attend the sacred mysteries, then they are. We must, by the grace of God, seek a deeper healing, seek something more than expunging history.”

Briscoe’s column added that “the very worst thing is to say nothing at all [about Rupnik’s abuse]. We’ve all seen the effect of the unuttered words in our churches these past decades,” the priest wrote.

But “art is not a cipher for the good of a particular person. Just as the demeanor of a sleepy priest in no way invalidates the Mass, the work itself is not a measure of the soul of the artist. Art has to be judged by its own standards, not by the moral residue of a work’s creator,” Briscoe wrote Dec. 16.

It is not yet clear what will happen in the American churches displaying Rupnik’s work.

In 2015, the priest installed mosaics in the Redemptor Hominis Church and the Luminous Mysteries Chapel at the St. John Paul II Shrine in Washington, DC — an apostolate of the Knights of Columbus.

Ten years earlier, in 2005, Rupnik installed mosaics in the Holy Family Chapel, at the Knights of Columbus’ headquarters in New Haven, Connecticut.

The work in New Haven – Rupnik’s first project in the U.S. – was described by the fraternal organization as “theologically profound in its exploration of the mysteries of our faith.”

But in light of the allegations against Rupnik, the Knights of Columbus told The Pillar they are reconsidering the place of that work in their chapels, both in Washington and New Haven.

In response to questions, a Knights of Columbus spokesman told The Pillar Dec. 21 that “we are reviewing the matter in light of these very troubling developments.”

It is not certain when the Knights of Columbus might announce the results of their internal review.

A Catholic university in Fairfield, Connecticut, is taking a different approach.

In 2009, Rupnik completed a series of large mosaics, covering nearly 2,000 square feet in total, at the newly constructed $17 million Chapel of the Holy Spirit at Sacred Heart University.

The mosaics were designed by Rupnik, and installed by a team of artisans overseen and directed by the priest, according to the New York Times.

A Sacred Heart University webpage, taken offline on Wednesday after questions from The Pillarbut preserved on an internet archiving site, emphasized that Rupnik “designed and executed” the chapel’s “dazzling mosaics.” The page credited Rupnik as the project’s “chapel artist.”

A university brochure promoting the project also emphasized Rupnik’s role in the mosaics’ design and execution, and did not mention other artisans involved in the project.

But in emailed comments to The Pillar Dec. 21, Deb Noack, the university’s communications director, framed the mosaics as a group project, with a diminished emphasis on Rupnik’s role.

The mosaics were actually “created in 2009 by many artists from Centro Aletti where Marko Rupnik was the director,” Noack told The Pillar.

“Their works of art can be found around the globe, including the Vatican, the Knights of Columbus chapel in New Haven and the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C.,” she added.

Noack said the university was “very surprised and disappointed to learn the recent news related to Rupnik and inappropriate and exploitative behavior.”  

But in response to questions about whether the mosaics might come down, Noack explained that “the art speaks for themselves and are works of faith and we consider them as such.”

In a follow-up question for clarity, The Pillar asked whether that response meant the removal of the works was not under consideration.

The university has not yet responded to that question.

While Rupnik’s mosaics remain installed in churches around the world, at least one alleged victim connected them directly with the priest’s alleged sexual abuse.

In an interview Sunday, a former religious sister claimed that while the priest was grooming her, he asked that she pose for him as he sketched the collarbone of Jesus Christ for a project he was working on.

“It was not difficult to accept and unbutton a few buttons on my blouse. For me, who was naive and inexperienced, it only meant helping a friend. On that occasion he kissed me lightly on the mouth, telling me that this was how he kissed the altar where he celebrated the Eucharist,” the woman recalled.  

More abuse followed later, she said, calling her experience a “descent into hell.”

The woman told Italian newspaper Domani that Rupnik’s art and abuse were intensely intertwined.

“His sexual obsession was not extemporaneous but deeply connected to his conception of art and his theological thought,” the woman claimed.

As details have emerged about the allegations against Rupnik, the Jesuit order, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Pope Francis himself have come under fire for their handling of the claims against the priest.

In 2020, Rupnik was permitted to preach a Vatican Lenten retreat while he was undergoing a penal process at the DDF for abusing the confessional. Despite his excommunication, the priest was later permitted to design the logo for the Vatican-sponsored 2022 World Meeting of Families. Rupnik was featured in videos released by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life.

For its part, the Society of Jesus is accused of making misleading statements about its response to allegations against Rupnik, and of failing to appropriately restrict Rupnik’s ministry after he was accused of abuse and misconduct.

Jesuit leaders claim they restricted the priest’s ministry in 2019, despite the fact that Rupnik continued to give lectures, produce weekly YouTube videos, and lead high-profile apostolic projects since that time. The Jesuits initially stated that the priest’s ministry was restricted in 2021; officials modified that initial statement only after reporters unearthed the 2019 allegations made against Rupnik.

And questions have been raised about why the DDF did not initiate or push for a penal process related to the accusations of abuse in Slovenia – or push to waive the canonical statute of limitations in the case – especially since the bishop who investigated allegations of abuse in Slovenia insists they are true.

The Holy See has not indicated whether Rupnik will face a new canonical process related to the allegations. But the Jesuits have urged other potential victims to come forward – indicating that a canonical trial over the alleged abuse could eventually be initiated.

U.S. chapels are not the only place where Rupnik’s art is prominently displayed, and where some Catholics have called for it to be taken down.

On social media, some Catholics have called this week for publisher liturgical publisher Oregon Catholic Press to revise the cover of its 2023 “Music Issue” pew missal, which reportedly features a photograph of a Rupnik mosaic, and to recall printed copies which have already been distributed.

Oregon Catholic Press has not yet responded to The Pillar’s request for comment.

For her part, Barthel told The Pillar that as a survivor of clerical sexual abuse, it would not be possible for her to pray in a chapel designed by Rupnik, given the allegations against him.

“I think I would have a lot of anger in seeing that. I really don’t think I would do that — no I would not. I would not subject myself to doing that.”

Barthel acknowledged that some Catholics might push to keep Rupnik’s mosaics in place, arguing that the art can be distinguished from the crimes of the artist.

“But to me, that would feel gross. The religious community of the priest who abused me didn’t want to tell anyone, or make known his abuse, because of the ‘good’ he supposedly did for other people. And that hurts a lot. Because the truth is that when we sin against one of God’s children in such a grievous manner, that trumps everything else.”

Barthel said she understands that removing mosaics – installed directly into the walls of churches and chapels – could be expensive, as is their installation.

“But it shouldn’t be about expense. I think the most virtuous path would be to take it down. If that’s not possible in a particular circumstance for some reason, you should make a statement about that, and make a donation on behalf of victims. I guess that would be the next best, but that would sadden my heart.”

But for Barthel, debate about what to do with Rupnik’s art points to a need in the Church to better understand the gravity of clerical sexual abuse involving adults.

“There are people on social media who are making this a Jesuit thing. Saying abuse like this is more likely to happen from a Jesuit priest. But this is a Catholic thing. This is a problem in the entire Church.”

“It doesn’t matter if you’re conservative or liberal, it doesn’t matter what religious community or diocese: this is a problem in the Church, and especially the abuse of adults, which is not being taken seriously and not being responded to seriously,” Barthel said.

In Barthel’s view, removing Rupnik’s art from sacred spaces would be a demonstration of solidarity with victims.

“It would tell survivors that the Church stands with the victims and not with the perpetrators,” she said.

“Rupnik’s victims should be given sledge hammers to break all his work,” Barthel suggested.

“That’s only a sliver of damage in comparison to the damage he did to their minds, hearts and souls.”