Pope’s top adviser, women who say they were abused by ex-Jesuit artist ask for mosaics to be removed

Lawyer Laura Sgro’, left, talks to Mirjam Kovac, center, and Gloria Branciani, as they arrive for an interview with the Associated Press, in Rome, Friday, June 28, 2024. Kovac and Branciani are two of five women who urged Catholic bishops around the world to remove from their churches mosaics by ex-Jesuit artist Rev. Marko Rupnik after they accused him of psychologically, spiritually and sexually abusing them.

By  NICOLE WINFIELD

The scandal over a famous ex-Jesuit artist who is accused of psychologically, spiritually and sexually abusing adult women came to a head Friday after some of his alleged victims and the pope’s own anti-abuse adviser asked for his artworks not to be promoted or displayed.

The separate initiatives underscored how the case of the Rev. Marko Rupnik, whose mosaics grace some of the Catholic Church’s most-visited shrines and sanctuaries, continues to cause a headache for the Vatican and Pope Francis, who as a Jesuit himself has been drawn into the scandal.

Early Friday, five women who say they were abused by Rupnik sent letters to Catholic bishops around the world asking them to remove his mosaics from their churches, saying their continued display in places of worship was “inappropriate” and retraumatizing to victims.

Separately, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, head of the pope’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, sent his own letter urging Vatican offices to stop displaying Rupnik’s works. He said continued use of the works ignores the pain of victims and could imply a defense of the Slovene priest.

The two-pronged messages were issued after the Vatican’s top communications official strongly defended using images of Rupnik artwork on the Vatican News website, insisting that it caused no harm to victims and was a Christian response.

The Rupnik scandal first exploded publicly in late 2022 when the Jesuit religious order admitted that he had been excommunicated briefly for having committed one of the Catholic Church’s most serious crimes: using the confessional to absolve a woman with whom he had engaged in sexual activity.

The case continued to create problems for the Jesuits and Francis, since a dozen more women came forward saying they too had been victimized by Rupnik. The Vatican initially refused to prosecute, arguing the claims were too old.

Nevertheless, after hearing from more victims, the Jesuits expelled Rupnik from the order and Francis — under pressure because of suspicions he had protected his fellow Jesuit — waived the statute of limitations so that the Vatican could open a proper canonical trial.

To date Rupnik hasn’t responded publicly to the allegations and refused to respond to his Jesuit superiors during their investigation. His supporters at his Centro Aletti art studio have denounced what they have called a media “lynching.”

The debate about what to do with Rupnik’s works as the Vatican trial into him continues isn’t so much a matter of “cancel culture” or the age-old debate about whether one can appreciate art, such as a Caravaggio, separately from the actions of the artist. The reason is because some of Rupnik’s alleged victims say the abuse occurred precisely during the creation of the artwork itself, rendering the resulting mosaics a triggering and traumatic reminder of what they endured.

One nun said she was abused on the scaffolding as a mosaic was being installed in a church, another as she posed as his model.

“Notwithstanding the years that have passed, the trauma that each suffered has not been erased, and it lives again in the presence of each of Father Rupnik’s works,” said their letter, which was signed by attorney Laura Sgro on behalf of her five clients and sent Friday to more than 100 bishops, Vatican embassies and religious superiors around the world who are known to have Rupnik mosaics in their territories.

Gloria Branciani, one of the first Rupnik victims to go public, said she long wrestled with the question of what to do with his mosaics. But in an interview Friday, she said she came to the conclusion they must be removed from places of worship after learning that other women had been abused precisely in their creation.

“This doesn’t mean destroy the work, it means it can be moved somewhere else,” she said in an interview Friday. “The important thing is that it not remain connected to the expression of people’s faith … because using a work that is borne from an inspiration of abuse cannot remain in a place where people go to pray.”

The Vatican trial against Rupnik is ongoing — Sgro says she hasn’t been contacted to provide testimony of her clients — and Rupnik’s many defenders in the Vatican and beyond say it’s important to withhold final judgment until the Vatican makes its ruling.

But the scandal came back to life last week when the head of the Vatican’s communications department, Paolo Ruffini, was asked at a Catholic media conference why the Vatican News website continues to feature an image of a Rupnik mosaic.

Ruffini defended using the image, saying he was in no position to judge Rupnik and that in the history of civilization, “removing, deleting or destroying art has never been a good choice.”

When it was pointed out that he hadn’t mentioned the impact on victims of seeing Rupnik’s artwork promoted by the Vatican, Ruffini noted that the women weren’t minors and that while “closeness to the victims is important, I don’t know that this (removing the artwork) is the way of healing.”

When the reporter, Paulina Guziak of Our Sunday Visitor News, suggested otherwise, Ruffini said: “I think you’re wrong. I think you’re wrong. I really think you’re wrong.”

His comments shocked victims and apparently prompted O’Malley to send a letter to all Vatican offices saying he hoped that “pastoral prudence would prevent displaying artwork in a way that could imply either exoneration or a subtle defense” of alleged perpetrators of abuse.

“We must avoid sending a message that the Holy See is oblivious to the psychological distress that so many are suffering,” O’Malley wrote on behalf of the commission June 26.

The women who wrote their own letter said they greatly appreciated O’Malley’s statement, which they took as a show of support that came as a pleasant and unexpected surprise.

“It’s a sign that the times have matured,” said Mirjam Kovac, a Slovene canon lawyer at the Pontifical Gregorian University who is a former member of Rupnik’s community.

Sister Samuelle, a French nun who says Rupnik manipulated her over years, taking advantage of her vulnerability to eventually touch her intimately while on a mosaic installation scaffolding, thanked O’Malley “from my heart.”

“In this difficult, weighty and traumatic situation, we took this important step with our letter. And I receive his declaration as a sign that there’s someone else who cares,” she said in an interview.

For advocates of victims, the Rupnik scandal and Ruffini’s comments were continued evidence that the church in general, and Vatican in particular, continually dismiss abuse of adult women as mere sinful behavior by priests rather than traumatic abuse that affects them for life.

“The continued use of Rupnik’s art is incredibly hurtful to many abuse survivors, who see this as emblematic of an ongoing lack of concern for the needs of all survivors,” Sara Larson, executive director of Awake, a survivor support and advocacy organization, said in an email.

Removal of the mosaics, however, is no simple matter since some cover entire basilica façades (Lourdes, France); entire interiors (the Vatican’s own Redemptoris Mater chapel); or, in the case of the St. Padre Pio sanctuary in southern Italy, the entire floor-to-ceiling gilded smaller church.

Other churches have smaller-scale mosaics but they are still prominent. The Rupnik-designed mosaics inside the Basilica of the Holy Trinity in Fatima, Portugal are so integral to its artistic and iconographic importance that the shrine is seeking status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But other churches are reconsidering. Bishop Jean-Marc Micas, whose diocese includes the Lourdes, France shrine, announced the creation of a study group last year to consider what to do with Rupnik’s mosaics. A decision is expected soon.

A reflection is also taking place at the Knights of Columbus’ St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington D.C. The Knights said the outcome of the Vatican’s canonical trial against Rupnik would be “an important factor in our considerations.”

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