Jesuits expel prominent priest after allegations of sexual, spiritual and psychological abuse

By Nicole Winfield

Pope Francis’ Jesuit religious order said Thursday it has expelled a prominent Slovenian priest from the congregation following allegations of sexual, spiritual and psychological abuses against adult women.

A statement from the Jesuits, obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday, said the Rev. Marko Ivan Rupnik was dismissed from the Jesuit order by decree on June 9 “due to stubborn refusal to observe the vow of obedience.”

Rupnik is one of the most celebrated religious artists in the Catholic Church, whose mosaics decorate churches and basilicas around the world, including at the Vatican.

Late last year, the Jesuits acknowledged he had been accused by several women of sexual, spiritual and psychological abuses over a 30-year period. But he had largely escaped punishment, apparently thanks in part to his exalted status in the church and at the Vatican, where even Francis’ role in the case came into question.

The Jesuit statement said Rupnik has 30 days to appeal the expulsion order. He remains a priest, just not a Jesuit priest, and has no authority to celebrate any sacraments publicly. He could eventually join a diocese, but such a process would take years and require a bishop to agree to take him in.

The Rupnik scandal exploded in December when Italian blogs and websites reported that consecrated women had complained for years about abuse by him, only to have their claims discredited or covered up by Rupnik’s superiors. The case posed a problem for the Vatican and the Jesuits because of suspicions that the charismatic priest received preferential treatment by the Holy See, where a Jesuit pope reigns and Jesuit priests are in top positions at the sex abuse office.

After the allegations erupted, the Jesuits reluctantly admitted Rupnik had been declared excommunicated in 2020 for having committed one of the gravest crimes in church law — using the confessional to absolve a woman with whom he had engaged in sexual activity — but had repented and had the sanction quickly removed.

The next year, Rupnik was accused by nine women of having sexually, psychologically and spiritually abused them in the 1990s at a community he co-founded in Slovenia. Even though the Jesuits recommended a church trial, the Vatican’s sex abuse office refused to waive the statute of limitations and declared the crimes too old to prosecute.

That outcome underscored how the Catholic hierarchy routinely refuses to consider spiritual and sexual abuse of adult women as a crime that must be punished, but rather a mere lapse of priestly chastity that can be forgiven, without considering the trauma it causes victims.

After the scandal, the Jesuits invited anyone with other claims against Rupnik to come forward, and 15 people did.

The Jesuits then asked Rupnik to respond, but he refused, according to the statement Thursday.

“Thus, we forced Father Marko Rupnik to change communities and accept a new mission in which we offered him one last chance as a Jesuit to come to terms with his past and to give a clear signal to the many aggrieved people who were testifying against him to enter a path of truth,” the statement said. “Faced with Marko Rupnik’s repeated refusal to obey this mandate, we were unfortunately left with only one solution: resignation from the Society of Jesus.”

Francis’ role in the Rupnik case also came into question, given the unusually quick turnaround in which Rupnik had been declared excommunicated and then had the penalty removed — a period of less than a month — as well as the Vatican’s refusal to waive the statute of limitations when the second set of allegations were lodged.

In a Jan. 24 interview with The Associated Press, Francis denied he had any role other than to intervene procedurally to keep the second set of accusations with the same tribunal that had heard the first.

He added that he was shocked by the allegations against Rupnik, with whom he had reportedly been close.

“For me, it was a surprise, really. This, a person, an artist of this level — for me was a big surprise, and a wound,” Francis told AP.

While the Jesuits had barred Rupnik from public preaching or engaging in artistic activity earlier this year, his expulsion from the order ostensibly leaves him free to do as he wants, since he now reports to no religious superior.

That freedom is a perennial problem in the church’s canonical system, where the worst punishment for an abusive priest is to be defrocked, or laicized, and thus free to keep on abusing without any oversight.

“As we see it, expulsion from a community of priests does not stop an alleged abuser from potentially committing further harm to others,” said the U.S.-based survivor advocacy group SNAP. In addition, it noted that the expulsion “does nothing in the form of justice” for his victims.

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