The Pillar [Washington DC]
September 18, 2023
By Ed. Condon
The case of Marko Rupnik, the priest, former member of the Society of Jesus, and alleged serial sexual abuser, is back in the news Monday, after the Diocese of Rome published a statement on its investigation into the artistic community where Rupnik lived and worked.
But rather than shedding new light on the accusations against the disgraced religious artist, or how he was allegedly able to groom and sexually abuse women religious for decades, the pope’s diocesan curia issued a statement exonerating the artistic community where lived and worked.
The statement from the Vicariate of the Diocese of Rome appeared even to favor Rupnik, questioning the legitimacy of his canonical prosecution.
The apparent effort to downplay the scandal generated instant backlash and, rather than making it go away, seems to have only increased the size of the “Rupnik problem” it continues to face.
The Vicariate of the Diocese of Rome, the chancery which handles the day-to-day governance of the pope’s diocese, issued a statement Monday morning describing the conclusions of a visitation to the Centro Aletti, a center of art, theology, and culture at which Rupnik lived and served as director.
The vicariate said the formal visitation of the center, which is located in the Diocese of Rome and was granted canonical legal status by the diocese in 2019, was ordered in January by papal vicar Cardinal Angelo De Donatis.
But the purpose, wrapped in ecclesiastically ambiguous rhetoric, was not clear. The visitation was to examine “the associative dynamics and the real consistency of the questions raised by some [unspecified] instances.”
That visitation, carried out by Msgr. Giacomo Incitti, an expert consultor at the Church’s supreme canonical court and professor of canon law at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome, concluded “that within the Centro Aletti there is a healthy community life without any particular critical issues.”
“The visitor was able to ascertain that the members of the Centro Aletti, although saddened by the accusations received and the ways in which they were handled, chose to maintain silence – despite the vehemence of the media — to guard their hearts and not claim any irreproachability with which to stand as judges of others.”
The report’s praise of the center’s members for “maintaining silence” about the scores of accusations that Rupnik spiritually and sexually abused women, including through overtly sacrilegious sexual acts, has provoked outrage among victims’ advocates, who have long accused the the diocese and the center of attempting to minimize Rupnik’s crimes.
If the center could for years be led by a serial sexual abuser, many critics have said, how is it possible to conclude there are no “particular issues” with the community? If no one said anything about those allegation, how could the place be healthy?
Also noteworthy are the repeated critical references to the media in the vicariate’s statement, along with previous statements by Cardinal De Donatis’ office, which appear to blame the press for an unhealthy interest in exposing Rupnik’s history of abuse allegations, while downplaying diocesan responsibility, and that of the Centro Aletti community.
The statement would not be the first time that the Diocese of Rome has aimed to blame the media, and deflect attention.
In December 2022, Cardinal De Donatis published a statement effectively disavowing responsibility for Rupnik or his crimes, even while conceding the priest had a “multi-level pastoral relationship with the Diocese of Rome.”
Instead, the cardinal took aim at “disconcerting communication, especially from the media” regarding Rupnik’s crimes “which disorients the People of God.”
But Monday’s statement from the vicariate seems likely only to amplify questions about the health of the center, and to prompt the kind of media scrutiny which, Cardinal De Donatis has said, “disorients” Catholics.
According to multiple allegations and the conclusions of his own former order, Rupnik, an internationally feted religious artist, used his artistic process to groom and sexually abuse religious sisters over a period of decades.
In 2019, the Jesuits received an accusation of a grave delict (major crime) committed by Rupnik in 2015, which led to his conviction by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2021 of the attempting to sacramentally absolve a sexual partner.
While the investigation into Rupnik at that time produced evidence of the other accusations against Rupnik, including what could be considered the sexual abuse of vulnerable adults, the DDF concluded that the canonical statute of limitations had expired on these.
Instead, the case concluded by Rupnik being excommunicated by the DDF, the penalty required by canon law for attempted absolution of an accomplice. That penalty was lifted shortly thereafter following apparent contrition on Rupnik’s part and, despite the imposition of restrictions on his ministry he returned to a schedule of international travel and public speaking until details of the allegations against him surfaced in the press.
Rupnik is now without a religious order or diocese and is de iure suspended from ministry. While the Society of Jesus could, if it wished, pursue further action against Rupnik to press for his laicization, the Jesuits have indicated they consider him to no longer be their problem.
But just because the Jesuit order no longer considers Rupnik its problem, doesn’t mean he is no longer anyone’s problem — and specifically the Diocese of Rome’s.
Since his expulsion from the order for, among other things, refusing to move to a location directed by the society, sources in Rome have confirmed to The Pillar that Rupnik remains in Rome and a frequent fixture at the Centro Aletti, which remains a showcase for his art.
The Pillar has been told that the priest remains a welcome member of the center’s community despite his public disgrace and ecclesiastical sanction.
For many Church watchers, this is a continuation of a pattern in which Rupnik is formally punished by Church authorities but appears to remain prominently and publicly welcome in senior Church circles and especially at the center he led for many years.
This situation was not addressed in the vicariate’s statement on Monday, which instead appeared to question the DDF’s decision in the sole criminal case it did accept against Rupnik.
“Based on the copious documentary material studied, the visitor was able to find and therefore reported seriously anomalous procedures whose examination also generated well-founded doubts about the request for excommunication itself,” the statement said.
The case against Rupnik was, almost everyone would agree, presented in a chaotic and often contradictory way as it unfolded in the press, with the Society of Jesus issuing successive statements in which superiors appeared to grudgingly acknowledge and address new details and historic allegations only after they were reported, and often appeared to contradict their own previous accounts of what was known and when.
But the society has repeatedly made clear that its own eventual investigation into Rupnik was extensive, thorough and unambiguous in its findings in favor of the litany of alleged sexual abuses by the priest, even if they were outside of the canonical statute of limitations to prosecute.
The Diocese of Rome, on the other hand, seems to have gone in the other direction entirely, and appears now to be questioning the legitimacy of the DDF and Jesuit investigations and canonical processes covering the one crime for which the priest was prosecuted and briefly punished.
It’s not clear what the vicariate thought to achieve with its statement Monday.
If the hope was that it would address lingering concerns over the Centro Aletti and its relationship to a now-notorious abuser, it would appear to have done the opposite,
And if the intention was to try to insulate the Diocese of Rome from the scandal, and see the statement serve as a kind of final act of distancing from the Rupnik affair, it seems to have backfired badly on that score, too.
Instead of washing the diocese’s hands of Rupnik, in the way the Society of Jesus did when it announced it had expelled him, Monday’s statement actually highlights the uncomfortable reality that, as the place where he lives, the diocese of Rome is now perhaps the ecclesiastical authority to whom all future questions about Rupnik should be addressed.
Worst of all for Cardinal De Donatis, in appearing to second guess the canonical investigation into Rupnik’s crimes, the vicariate has drawn personal fire on both the cardinal and Pope Francis.
The influential Vatican-watch website Il Sismografo published an editorial on Monday accusing the vicariate of “unbearable and untruthful verbal acrobatics” by referring to Rupnik’s canonical process and punishment as a “request for excommunication” instead of acknowledging that the penalty was imposed by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The site’s editors argued that the vicariate’s intention was “to exonerate Pope Francis from the fact of having canceled the excommunication of Father Marko Rupnik.”
While Francis has faced numerous accusations online of having personally interfered with the Rupnik case, no evidence or direct reporting has emerged to substantiate those claims — as a canonical matter, the DDF is legally competent to investigate (or delegate investigation) the crime of attempted absolution of an accomplice in a sexual sin, and to declare and later remit the penalty of excommunication.
But those accusations are receiving a fresh airing now, thanks to Monday’s statement, compounded by its apparent suggestion Rupnik ought not to have been convicted at all.
The result seems to be that, far from helping close the case on Rupnik, the pope’s diocesan curia have inflamed the scandal all over again, and painted his own diocese as sympathetic to Rupnik’s cause, and at odds with both the DDF and the Society of Jesus.
For the Centro Aletti, the vicariate’s clean bill of health ironically means it will probably face even more media scrutiny in the future, and both the center and the vicariate are likely to face a fresh round of questions about Rupnik’s life and work in Rome in the weeks to come.