The Father Rupnik Case: How Transparent Have the Jesuits and the Vatican Been About These Abuse Allegations?
NEWS ANALYSIS: Crucial questions remain unanswered with respect to the handling of allegations of physical, sexual and spiritual abuse against the prominent Slovenian Jesuit priest.
VATICAN CITY — Ever since the Society of Jesus acknowledged last week that it had restricted the well-known Jesuit artist Father Marko Ivan Rupnik from ministry following allegations of abuse against religious sisters in Slovenia, questions have arisen about the transparency of both the society and the Vatican.
So what do we know about the case, and how forthright have both the Jesuits and the Vatican been, especially in light of Pope Francis’ recent appeal for greater transparency in all clerical abuse cases?
Father Rupnik, a 68-year-old Slovenian Jesuit best known for designing mosaic artworks for chapels, churches and shrines around the world for 30 years, is close to Pope Francis and influential in his native Slovenia where he is known as “one of the great reformers” and something of a “spiritual guru,” according to sources in the country. He is also well known for giving retreats. In 2020 the Pope chose him to temporarily stand in for Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the pontifical household, to preach that year’s Lenten homilies at the Vatican.
The Abuse Allegations
But on Dec. 1, the Italian Catholic website Silere Non Possum (I Cannot Be Silent) reported on accusations that in 1995 a consecrated woman had suffered “psychological, physical and spiritual abuse” at the hands of the Jesuit. On Dec. 5, a source in the Diocese of Rome told CNA that Auxiliary Bishop Daniele Libanori of Rome had “received accusations from at least nine women.” The bishop conducted a visitation of the sisters’ institute in 2019, according to a report in the Italian publication Left.it.
In response to these reports, on Dec. 2 the Jesuits issued a statement confirming that the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) had received a complaint in 2021 against Father Rupnik concerning “his manner of ministry.”
“No minors were involved,” the statement noted, implying the case was consequently less serious, adding that the DDF asked the Society of Jesus “to set up a prior investigation into this case.” The religious order did so, appointing a non-Jesuit investigator to the task.
The statement elaborated that “various people were invited to give evidence,” after which a “final report” was handed to the DDF. But the DDF concluded that the facts in question had exceeded the canonical statute of limitations, and therefore the case was closed in October this year.
Nevertheless, according to the December statement, “various precautionary measures were taken against Father Rupnik: prohibition from exercising the sacrament of confession, spiritual direction and conducting spiritual exercises.
“In addition,” the statement added, “Father Rupnik was forbidden to engage in public activities without the permission of his local Superior,” and “these measures are still in force today, as administrative measures,” even after the DDF’s decision that the statute of limitations precluded further DDF actions.
“The Society of Jesus takes seriously any complaint against one of its members,” the statement concluded, adding that the Society’s mission “is also a mission of reconciliation. And we want to welcome all and everyone openly.”
Two important questions remain, however. The first concerns reports of another, separate case in which Father Rupnik is alleged to have broken the Sixth Commandment with a female Italian novice and then absolved the accomplice in the confessional — a grave canonical crime that automatically leads to excommunication.
The Italian website Left.it and the traditionalist Catholic website Messa in Latino, drawing on “high-level” DDF sources, have maintained that a second DDF tribunal unanimously handed down a conviction resulting in latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication . But Messa in Latino alleged that a statute of limitations was applied to the case “due to pressure from Father Rupnik" so that “the Holy Father lifted the excommunication, contrary to the tribunal’s decision.”
Messa in Latino reported Dec. 8 that this particular canonical investigation took place from the beginning of 2019 and concluded in 2020, and was conducted by Marianist Father Francisco Javier Canseco and two other non-Jesuit investigators. The author of the Messa in Latino article asked why the Vatican did not waive the statute of limitations given that it did not have to be applied to such cases, according to the DDF's 2020 Vademecum on clerical sex abuse (point 7).
The Register contacted Father Canseco Dec. 10 and asked if he could confirm Messa in Latino’s report. He told us to contact the Jesuits for more information.
The second question concerns reports that Father Rupnik continued to give spiritual retreats after the “precautionary measures” were taken as a consequence of the Slovenian allegations. Silere non possum reported, for example, that Father Rupnik held a course of spiritual exercises in Castel d’Ario near Verona as recently as this August, and a direct reference to Father Rupnik’s participation remained evident in the event’s online schedule. It also revealed a clergy retreat he preached at on May 10 this year in Larino, Italy (see video here).
Both retreats took place after the Jesuits say the restrictions were imposed, so it seems likely the allegations against him were known at the time by Pope Francis and other senior Jesuits. The Holy Father received Father Rupnik in private audience on Jan. 3, 2022.
Father Sosa’s Comments
In an interview this week with a Portuguese publication, Jesuit Father Arturo Sosa, the superior general of the Society of Jesus, wasn’t asked about the excommunication allegation and the alleged crime in the confessional. But regarding the allegations of earlier abuse against the Slovenian religious sisters, Father Sosa stressed that “no minors” were involved. He added the Jesuit order did not receive these allegations directly, but instead were notified by DDF, and confirmed the subsequent actions clarified by the Jesuits’ Dec. 2 statement.
Father Sosa repeated that “precautionary measures” — including a ban on conducting spiritual exercises — were immediately taken “from the moment we received the request to open an investigation,” which would have occurred in 2021. He added that even though the DDF closed the case due to these being “prescribed facts” (exceeding the statute of limitations), “the measures were maintained” because the Jesuit order wanted to “look into the matter further, to see how we can help everyone involved.”
Asked if Father Rupnik is to lead scheduled spiritual exercises in Loreto in February 2023, Father Sosa said: “I don’t think a spiritual retreat is planned,” but added that the Jesuit artist “is not in prison, nor do any of the measures affect his artistic work. He has very important artistic commitments. He can celebrate the Eucharist. What he is prohibited from doing is leading spiritual exercises or confessing. These are the precautionary measures because they must be proportionate to the facts.”
Asked by the Portuguese publication why there is no reference to victims in the Jesuits’ statement, Father Sosa said “because there was no trial that made it clear there is a victim here and an aggressor” and because the case is prescribed.
Jesuit Spokesman’s Response
In response to questions from the Register, especially about the alleged excommunication and its reported lifting, Jesuit spokesman Father Johan Verschueren stressed Dec. 9 that the case “is painful for all people concerned” and that he wanted to respect the “human dignity of all people,” asking for understanding that discussing the case “can be hurtful for many, as it could also expose their privacy.”
Father Verschueren pointed out that “two interfering legal systems” are involved — “penal law” handled by the DDF to safeguard the faith and sacramental life of the faithful; and “administrative law” intended to safeguard the quality of religious life that is the competence of superiors of religious orders.
He said that the DDF takes up a case “when it sees that the sacrament of Confession might be involved in an illegal way,” whereas the Society of Jesus would be involved when the matter concerned a “violation of the law of chastity.”
Father Verschueren then stressed that the penal dimension “was prescribed” regarding the case of Slovenian sisters because of the statute of limitations, so what remained was the “administrative concern,” which was carried out by imposing precautionary measures as part of a commitment “to create worldwide a safe environment for the people involved in pastoral and ecclesial contexts (always and everywhere): avoiding to harm people.”
But regarding the allegation of violating the sacrament of confession, he said that the Society of Jesus “did not find the alleged person guilty of transgression of the sacrament of confession, for that is not our competence.” He said such related questions “are to be answered by [the DDF]” but noted that such an allegation “was nowhere communicated.”
“This is standard procedure in the DDF,” he noted as “the content is traditionally kept secret (in all cases). The reason: the privacy of people.”
The Register asked both the DDF and the Vatican press office for confirmation of the trial and the alleged conviction, the lifting of the excommunication, and the case of the Slovenian sisters but did not receive a response.
We also asked Father Verscheuren on Dec. 10 if he could confirm whether the investigation carried out by Father Canseco had taken place but he declined to confirm or deny the allegation, citing “respect for the testimonies and their privacy, especially in view of their precious collaboration in an inquiry” and adding that “transparency is not an absolute value.” Pressed again on the matter, the Jesuit spokesman said: “I have given you all the information I was able to.”
In Dec. 9 comments to the Register, Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk, a professor of canon law at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, noted that normally in these cases, when an allegation is received, the ordinary involved — in this case, the major superior of the Society of Jesus — conducts a “preliminary investigation to determine if the allegation contains a semblance of truth,” and then gives an opinion on what action should be taken next.
Consequently, Father Pietrzyk believes it’s legitimate to ask what the Jesuits expressed to the DDF on whether there was a semblance of truth and how the allegation should be handled. He also pointed out that the DDF has the authority to dispense from prescription regarding the statute of limitations — something it will consider when requested. Therefore, whether the Society of Jesus requested this is a legitimate question.
Regarding the lack of public information on the potential violation of the seal of confession, Father Pietrzyk said it could be possible for this to be revealed as, although public announcements of preliminary investigations are usually discouraged because they usually involve “the secret of office,” it is not an “absolute limitation.”
“The society is able to reveal some information, and simply saying this is only for the DDF seems to me to misunderstand the process and the society’s role in the penal matter,” Father Pietrzyk told the Register. “But I do agree that DDF has a much greater ability to provide transparency than does the society, at least as to the penal process.”
However, he also stressed that “because of the nature of the seal of confession, cases involving solicitation in the confessional are rarely if ever discussed by the DDF.”
‘Be as Transparent as Possible’
Asked whether the Society of Jesus could be more transparent about the Father Rupnik allegations, Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, director of Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care at the Pontifical Gregorian University, told the Register Dec. 9, “I don’t know whether anything more from the society’s side was possible in this case.”
The Jesuit priest, who has been at the forefront of instituting safeguarding procedures regarding clerical abuse cases, said he expects “the same from the Society of Jesus as from all others in the Church: to be as transparent as possible.”
But his Jesuit confrere, Father Gianfranco Matarrazzo, a former Jesuit Provincial of the Euro-Mediterranean Province, expressed considerable anger over how the allegations have been handled. In Dec. 7 comments on Twitter, he wrote: “With all my limitations, I am trying to give my life to the Catholic Church through the Jesuits. The mortifying dichotomy ‘conservative or progressive’ has never belonged to me. But it has to be said: the ‘Rupnik case’ is a tsunami of injustice, lack of transparency, questionable management, dysfunctional activity, personalised work, apostolic community sacrificed to the leader and unequal treatment.”
He added that the Dec. 2 Jesuit statement “relaunches this tsunami” that is “a paradigmatic case of justice denied” where “not even the alleged perpetrator has been helped.” The result is “deadly damage to the Jesuit Order, but even more so to Holy Mother Church,” he continued, and gave suggestions on what he believed needed to be done. These included accepting “full responsibility and consequences,” offering a “detailed reconstruction of everything that happened,” convening a press conference to “answer all questions in a transparent manner,” opening up the archives, and having Father Zollner “take a stand on his Order.”
For his part, the Holy Father has remained silent about the matter, even though the allegations regarding Father Rupnik and the Pope’s alleged intervention came to light only days after he affirmed in his Nov. 24 interview with the Jesuit journal America that transparency must be a central characteristic of how clergy abuse allegations are addressed.
Asked whether this principle should be applied as strongly in cases involving bishops as it is with respect to priests, Francis replied, “Yes, and here I believe we have to go forward with equal transparency. If there is less transparency, it is a mistake.”
This article has been updated to include Father Verschueren’s latest comments given Dec. 11.
- Father Marko Rupnik