Aftershocks of the Latest Father Rupnik Earthquake

COMMENTARY: The whole stomach-churning affair has constituted another major stain on Pope Francis’ record on sex abuse cases.

Then Jesuit Father Marko Rupnik is shown at the 'Aletti' workshop in Rome in November 2007.
Then Jesuit Father Marko Rupnik is shown at the 'Aletti' workshop in Rome in November 2007. (photo: Abaca Press / Sipa USA via Associated Press)

VATICAN CITY — With the world media in Rome to cover the signature synodality initiative of Pope Francis, a stomach-churning Jesuit scandal returned to dominate the news.

To the outrage of victims, the shock of the assembled synod delegates, the bewilderment of bishops and the shame of the Holy See, it turned out that the world’s most infamous Jesuit abuser, Father Marko Rupnik, had been returned to ministry in a Slovenian diocese. The news rocketed around Rome on Wednesday evening.

On Friday, with the Vatican engaged in intense damage control, the Holy Father reversed himself in the face of a media outcry. He directed that the Rupnik case be reopened at the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), and lifted the statute of limitations to that effect. The Holy See press office stated that it was an example “[listening] attentively and compassionately to those who are suffering.”

Father Rupnik has been for generations one the world’s most celebrated Jesuit priests, the artist commissioned to provide monumental mosaics for a Vatican chapel, as well at Lourdes, the John Paul II sanctuaries in Krakow and Washington, as well as other prominent shrines. The most famous Catholic artist in the world, he was chosen to design the official Vatican logos for the Jubilee of Mercy and the World Meeting of Families.

The favor was not only official, but personal — he was granted papal audiences by his fellow Jesuit, Pope Francis, and invited once to preach to the Roman Curia.

Hence it was a veritable earthquake in Rome when, in November 2022, it was reported that there were a long series of allegations of sacrilegious and repellant sexual abuse against various religious sisters over whom Rupnik had spiritual and professional authority.

What followed was still more appalling.

The Jesuits knew in January 2020 that Father Rupnik had committed one of the most serious canonical crimes, offering sacramental absolution to someone with whom he had had illicit sexual contact. Despite being in a state of automatic excommunication, the Society of Jesus permitted Pope Francis to invite him to preach a Lenten recollection to the Pope himself and the Roman Curia.

Father Rupnik’s excommunication was formally confirmed by the DDF in May 2020, but lifted shortly thereafter. The Jesuits then put restrictions on Father Rupnik’s ministry, especially regarding spiritual direction and confession for women.

In 2022, a nauseating dossier of allegations arrived at the DDF. The dates of the allegations required the DDF to lift the statute of limitations in order to put Father Rupnik on trial. When it declined to do so, no case could proceed against the celebrity priest. The matter was leaked to the media to put pressure on the Jesuit superiors, the then-Jesuit prefect of the DDF and the Jesuit pope to do something.

For his part, Pope Francis protested that he had no involvement in the case, but expressed his agreement that the statute of limitations should not have been lifted in Father Rupnik’s case since it didn’t involve minors.

The international outcry in late 2022 forced the Jesuits to act. They further restricted Father Rupnik’s ministry and declared that the allegations made by dozens of women were “highly credible.” When Father Rupnik would not abide by the restrictions, the Jesuits speedily expelled him for “stubborn disobedience” in June 2023, ostentatiously and conveniently declaring that he was no longer their problem — a not so subtle declaration that Pope Francis could deal with Father Rupnik now. Which the Holy Father declined to do.

Before the Jesuits formally expelled him, Father Rupnik wrote to his hometown diocese of Koper, Slovenia, asking to be “incardinated” on a trial basis. In August the local bishop admitted Father Rupnik, meaning that he had the capacity for ministry again. No longer a Jesuit, the previous Jesuit restrictions no longer applied.

Why would Bishop Jurij Bizjak of Koper admit one of the most infamous abusers in the world? The diocese defended the incardination on the grounds that Father Rupnik had not been convicted on anything. This is true, but only because the DDF — with at least ex post approval from Pope Francis — declined to lift the statute of limitations, which is often done in abuse cases. Nevertheless, the Jesuits had declared the allegations “highly credible.” So the likelihood was that Father Rupnik was guilty of grave crimes.

The decision to incardinate Father Rupnik in Koper is all the more strange given that Bishop Bizjak signed a unanimous joint statement of the Slovenian bishops in December 2022, decrying Father Rupnik’s “unacceptable and reprehensible actions,” and calling on any his victims to come forward “so that the truth and a just verdict can be reached as comprehensively as possible.”

An explanation may lie in the reporting that Bishop Bizjak consulted the apostolic nuncio in Slovenia, Archbishop Jean-Marie Speich, who indicated that Father Rupnik could be admitted. Bishop Bizjak may have assumed that this was the preferred Roman solution. In any case, the whole affair has constituted another major stain on the Holy Father’s record on abuse cases.

Hence the speedy response in Rome, after dragging out the case and declining to act for years. Within 36 hours of the news breaking about the decision in Koper, the Holy See announced that Pope Francis was going to act against Father Rupnik. The urgency of the scandal was compounded by the ambiance of the Synod on Synodality; hundreds of cardinals and bishops were present, each of whom knew that they would be liable to lose their office over a debacle as grave as that of the Father Rupnik case.

It is likely that someone will have to go, and the Slovenian nuncio is a likely candidate. He will be faulted for giving the go ahead to Koper, even if he was accurately reflecting desires at the highest levels in Rome.

The long-delayed and now hasty decision of Pope Francis will get the Father Rupnik affair out of the final press conferences at the synod. But it will remain in the pain of Father Rupnik’s victims, and the shame of it all will remain in Slovenia, the Society of Jesus and the Holy See.