Father Rupnik Case Riddled With Glaring Lapses in Judgment
COMMENTARY: The response of the Society of Jesus to this distressing issue seems inadequate and dishonest; the conduct of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith curious; and the role of the Pope perplexing.
The sexual misconduct case of Jesuit Father Marko Rupnik is complex and distressing, and invites further questions on a number of aspects. The celebrated Jesuit artist, given many of the most important mosaic commissions over the last 30 years — including the Redemptoris Mater chapel in the Apostolic Palace — has been accused of serial abuse of adults under his pastoral direction.
The response of the Jesuit order seems inadequate and dishonest; the conduct of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) curious; and the role of the Holy Father himself perplexing.
Another Founder Has Fallen
The allegations against Father Rupnik arise from the “Loyola Community” he founded in the 1980s in his native Slovenia. After a dispute with his co-foundress, he and some of the sisters moved to Rome in 1993, establishing the Centro Aletti, a studio for his artistic work and a community of Ignatian spirituality.
The story is sadly a familiar one for so many new communities — the founder abused his office to manipulate those under his authority, with allegations of psychological, spiritual and sexual abuse. From the Legion of Christ’s founder, Father Marcial Maciel, to L’Arche founder Jean Vanier, such revelations are no longer the shock that they once were, but remain highly distressing.
Abuse of the Confessional
In canon law, abuse of the sacraments constitutes the gravest crimes; priests who break the seal of confession incur an automatic excommunication, for example, as do those who commit certain offenses against the Eucharist.
In late 2018, Father Rupnik was accused of “absolving an accomplice” in confession, the canonical term for attempting to grant sacramental forgiveness to a partner in a sexual sin. That canonical crime incurs automatic excommunication even if no coercion or abuse was involved.
The Jesuits began a preliminary investigation, as is proper in such situations. In May 2019, the investigators found the accusations credible. The CDF was notified, which is required with allegations regarding the most grave crimes. The Jesuits placed restrictions on Father Rupnik, principally prohibiting him from hearing the confessions of women or providing spiritual direction.
The CDF directed the Jesuits to conduct a “penal process”: a criminal trial for canonical crimes. In January 2020, the relevant panel unanimously found Father Rupnik guilty. Given that excommunication is the automatic penalty for that crime, it does not need to be formally pronounced. As soon as Father Rupnik knew that he had absolved an accomplice — either at the time itself, or when the penal process judged it to be so — he knew that he was excommunicated and should not be administering or receiving the sacraments or preaching as a Catholic priest.
The formal excommunication was pronounced by the CDF in May 2020 and lifted the same month. The restrictions remain in place to this day.
The penalty of excommunication is not intended to banish someone permanently; it is meant to prompt conversion and repentance. Father Rupnik, having been found guilty in January 2020, should have withdrawn from all ministry immediately, which was not the case. Why the Society of Jesus did not insist on that has not been explained.
When the excommunication was formally announced by the CDF in May 2020, Father Rupnik was apparently repentant. It was proper then that the excommunication be lifted.
The Jesuits maintained what they call “precautionary measures.” He was not permitted to hear confessions of women or offer spiritual direction. That ongoing restriction can only be understood as “precautionary” if the Jesuit superiors considered him an ongoing danger.
At this point, two glaring lapses emerge, sufficient to call into question whether the Jesuit superiors, including Father General Arturo Sosa, will continue to enjoy the confidence of their confreres.
Preaching to the Curia
In Advent and Lent, the preacher of the papal household — for more than 40 years Capuchin Father (now Cardinal) Raniero Cantalamessa — gives a series of preached sermons to the Holy Father and the senior cardinals and bishops of the Roman Curia. In March 2020, Father Rupnik was invited to step in for Father Cantalamessa, who was ill.
Astonishingly, Father Rupnik accepted the assignment, even though he knew that had incurred an automatic excommunication at the time. It is impossible that his Jesuit superiors did not know; it is unimaginable that Father Sosa was not fully informed about one of the most prominent Jesuits in the world. Nevertheless, Father Rupnik was permitted to preach.
If Fathers Rupnik and Sosa withheld this information from Pope Francis, it was a great betrayal. If they did tell the Holy Father and he permitted Father Rupnik to preach to Roman Curia when he was in an excommunicated state, it would be a perplexing decision.
The second glaring lapse is that the 2018 allegation apparently gave rise to an exceedingly narrow investigation. It is hardly uncommon that those guilty of such grave misconduct might have other victims. It appears that the Jesuits, even knowing Father Rupnik’s great influence and authority in the Centro Aletti, did not conduct a thorough investigation.
Given that the Jesuits maintained restrictions on Father Rupnik even after the excommunication was lifted, they had to at least suspect that he was — and therefore could have been in the past — a danger. Why then did they not act on those reasonable suspicions?
Allegations of Serial Abuse
Had a more energetic investigation been done, it is quite likely that the Jesuits would have uncovered more allegations. Those would come to light in June 2021, when the CDF asked the Jesuits to investigate claims of serial abuse against as many as nine Loyola sisters, according to various media outlets. Some of those reports are nauseating to read.
Father Sosa set up an investigation in July 2021 and in January 2022 the allegations were judged credible, and direction from the CDF was sought. Father Rupnik was granted a private audience with Pope Francis that month; the purpose of the meeting and what was discussed has not been revealed.
In October 2022, the now Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith responded that a penal process will not proceed, as the accusations were beyond the statute of limitations. When this was all revealed in the media in early December, there was widespread surprise, as the DDF can — and often does — permit such cases to proceed by waiving the time limit.
Why did it drop the cases this time? No explanation was given. It is not unreasonable to speculate that the DDF — led by a Jesuit, Cardinal Luis Ladaria — might have judged that there was little point. After all, in 2020, when Father Rupnik was convicted of a most grave crime, Father Sosa permitted Father Rupnik to preach to the Roman Curia and to continue his priestly ministry. Why bother with another penal process if Father Sosa might render it ineffective again?
Father Rupnik’s public ministry is over — thanks not to Father Sosa, Cardinal Ladaria or Pope Francis, but to Italian news sites, which broke the story. It is difficult to imagine, as revelations continue in the media, that he will be welcome to minister anywhere. It is possible that, given the embarrassment that his case has caused the Jesuits and the DDF, that they might decide to reopen a penal process as a way to get rid of him.
Father Sosa is deeply compromised, not only for how he handled Father Rupnik’s case, but because, when the story first broke, he said that the “precautionary measures” on Father Rupnik were the result of the 2021 serial abuse allegations, not the conviction and excommunication in 2020. In saying that, was Father Sosa lying, though he may not have intended to do so?
The damage, if any, to Pope Francis will be negligible. The Father Rupnik affair is not as bad as the case of Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, who is now imprisoned in Argentina after Pope Francis repeatedly protected him. In any case, the Mahony Protocol applies, in which prelates who endorse popular liberal political causes — immigration, redistributive economics, climate change — get a pass on mishandling sexual misconduct cases.
Yet even the Mahony Protocol could not protect Cardinal Roger Mahony forever; he is persona non grata in wide swaths of the Church. With the Jesuits now in crisis mode with the Father Rupnik case, Father Sosa may soon join him.