La Croix International [France]
February 16, 2023
By Christophe Henning
The thorny question of what to do with the works of celebrated Church artists, writers and founders who have since been found guilty of sexually abusing vulnerable people
A book came out in 2020 (Prêtres et artistes du diocèse de Lyon: XXe-XXIe siècles) painted a a glowing portrait of the French Catholic priest and artist Louis Ribes (1920-1994), who was nicknamed “the Picasso of churches”. But less than two years later three dioceses – Lyon, Saint-Étienne and Grenoble – Lyon issued a joint press release denouncing the late priest for his sexual assault of some fifty children in the 1970s and 80s after two the victims went public.
Ribes’ trademark signature, “RIB”, now taints all his works – stained glass windows, paintings, stations of the cross… The priest from Lyon had worked in dozens of churches.
And now, at the request of a group of victims, the archdiocese of Lyon is taking steps to remove Ribes’ art.
The work and the artist
The case dramatically illustrates the link between the work and the artist, especially when the latter takes pride in having a virtuous status.
Should we turn our backs on the mosaics of Marko Rupnik, which adorn the Basilica of the Rosary in Lourdes? After all, the Slovenian Jesuit has been sanctioned for sexually assaulting adult women. And can we still read the writings of Jean Vanier? The founder of L’Arche was accused of abuse in 2020, accusations that were confirmed last month in a damning report.
What should we do with these works after the revelation of aggressions implicating their authors?
“I think of the victims of Ribes, of the horror they must feel at having their image as a child displayed by their tormentor,” said Michel, himself a priest an a victim of sexual assault during childhood. Michel is the author of a photograph of a “crying child” that the French Bishops’ Conference (CEF) chose last year to represent the hierarchy’s request for forgiveness during an assembly in Lourdes.
The priest-photographer is sympathetic to the reaction of Ribes’ victims when they see the late artist’s works and are reminded again of the violence and exploitation they experienced as youngsters.
The question does not only arise in the Church. For instance, should we still be screening the films of Roman Polanski or reading the literary confidences of Gabriel Matzneff?
“When the work participates in promoting pedocriminality or, like Céline, anti-Semitism, it falls under the law,” pointed out Gisèle Sapiro, director of research at the School for the Advanced Study of Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris. Nonetheless, “in the absence of legal proceedings, it is the responsibility of the cultural institution to determine, or not, the publicity around the work”, she said.
Most people agree that the main objective is to make sure that the victims are not shocked or wounded yet again. Olivier Araujo, the mayor of Charly, a town of 5,000 inhabitants 25 km from Lyon, heard the request of Father Ribes’s victims, who said that hiding the signature alone was not enough. Therefore, under an agreement with the city, the pedophile priest’s stained glass windows will be dismantled at the archdiocese’s expense – to the tune of several thousand euros.
In the village of Sainte-Catherine, in the mountains of Lyon, there is already talk of replacing Ribes’ work with new windows dedicated to the memory of the victims. Discussions are also well advanced with other towns and municipalities in the surrounding area.
Dismantling the stained glass windows
“Each project is different,” explained Christophe Ravinet, head of communications for the archdiocese of Lyon. “We have to take into account the constraints of dismantling and decide what will be done afterwards. All of this has an impact on the schedule and on financing.”
While it takes time to remove the stained glass windows, a hundred removable paintings, owned by the dioceses involved, are now stored in a closed space, with a commitment to never allow them to be displayed again in public.
No doubt some might see this as an attack on the freedom of expression and creativity. Just one criterion is – or is not – the link between the artist’s work and his reprehensible behavior. The case of Ribes is emblematic: a number of the frescoes he painted in French churches were inspired, in particular, by photos he had taken of naked children. He even allegedly assaulted minors during his artistic work.
For other artists, on the other hand, there is no confusion between the work and the criminally or morally reprehensible acts. But how can the victims bear the exposition of works created by their abuser?The church hymns composed by a French Dominican priest named André Gouzes have nothing to do with the abusive behavior he is currently being accused of. Gouzes’ trial is yet to get underway, and so he is still presumed innocent. But last October the Dominicans who lead the Rosary pilgrimage decided to remove all of his songs from their liturgies and services.
How can Father Rupnik be allowed to continue accepting commissions from numerous churches after the Vatican has sanctioned him for sexual assault?
The Jesuit artist was supposed to create a series of mosaics for the interior and exterior of a new church being built in the diocese of Versailles near Paris. But the head of the diocese nixed it.
“In making this decision, it is the people who may have suffered from these abuses that we must think of first of all,” said Bishop Luc Crepy.
Our Lady of the Rosary Basilica in Lourdes
But what should be done with already completed works, which are like an indelible mark? This debate is even thornier because, as Gisèle Sapiro points out, “there is always a part of the author in the work”.
As far as books are concerned, the reader can read a work or discard it with full knowledge of the facts, but diocesan or catechetical libraries will undoubtedly have to discard works praising Jean Vanier. But parishioners and pilgrims will find it more difficult to disregard the fresco by an abusive priest that is displayed before their eyes.
Should we remove Marko Rupnik’s many works of religious art piece by piece? Will it be necessary to dismount his mosaics that John Paul II commissioned for the Redemptoris Mater papal chapel in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican?
The Jesuit artist has also worked in some of Catholicism’s largest and most important shrines, such as those in Fatima, Krakow, Washington D.C. and … Lourdes. How could we keep the brilliant mosaics of the Slovenian artist on the façade of Our Lady of the Rosary Basilica while the Marian shrine becomes a memorial site for victims of abuse in the Church?
While the work can be shocking, it is not only the fault of the author, but also the moral responsibility of the institution. Although time has allowed us to admire the works of Caravaggio – himself a murderer – without being shocked, today’s extreme sensitivity to sexual assault – in a #MeToo society and Church – calls for a more radical response.