Two former nuns have called on Pope Francis to initiate an independent investigation into a once-prominent Jesuit artist-priest who they allege sexually abused them, including by forcing them to have threesomes and making them watch pornography so they would “grow spiritually”.
Speaking publicly for the first time, Mirjiam Kovac and Gloria Branciani said the wall of silence surrounding Marko Rupnik, who has been accused by several women of sexual, psychological and spiritual abuses dating back three decades, had finally “crumbled”.
The women are former members of the Ignatius of Loyola community, an order co-founded by Rupnik, whose mosaics adorn the walls of some Vatican chapels and other churches.
“We were all young girls, full of ideals,” Kovac said during a press conference in Rome. “But these very ideals, together with our training in obedience, were exploited for abuses of various kinds: of conscience, of power, spiritual, psychic, physical and often sexual.”
Both women reported Rupnik to senior Catholic church officials in the early 1990s, but claim they were repeatedly rebuffed and dismissed.
Rupnik was excommunicated in 2020 for absolving a woman with whom he had sex; the absolution of a “sexual accomplice” is among the most serious crimes under canon law. But he was reinstated two weeks later after he repented.
In 2022, allegations against Rupnik made by nine women were dismissed by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), citing the canonical statute of limitations.
Rupnik, however, remains a priest and was accepted into a diocese in Koper, in his native Slovenia, in October 2023. That same month, Pope Francis ordered the DDF to reopen the case, although Laura Sgrò, a lawyer representing Kovac and Branciani, said she had received no information relating to the new investigation.
Branciani alleged on Wednesday that she and another nun were forced to have a threesome with Rupnik “because he said it was like the [Holy] Trinity”.
The incident allegedly occurred in the home of a friend of Rupnik in Gorizia, a city in northern Italy. “The most terrible aspect of this threesome was that afterwards, we never spoke to each other about it,” she said. “We were both completely blocked … I was very tired, I felt empty and could no longer feel feelings of any kind other than a deep pain and sense of failure.”
Branciani also alleged to journalists that Rupnik forced her to watch pornography “to help me ‘grow spiritually’”.
Rupnik has not publicly commented on the accusations. The Guardian did not receive a response to an email sent to the Aletti Centre, a religious art centre in Rome founded by Rupnik with which he is still associated. Maria Campatelli, the director of the Aletti Centre, said last year that the accusations were “defamatory and unproven”.
The Koper diocese said it was unable to provide a statement on Wednesday, and referred to one made in October last year which said: “So long as Rupnik is not found guilty in a court of law, he enjoys all the rights and duties of a diocesan priest.”
A Holy See spokesperson, Matteo Bruni, told journalists the Vatican was gathering “all available information on the case” to “determine which procedures it would be possible and useful to implement”.
Anne Barrett Doyle, a co-founder of BishopAccountability, which tracks alleged clergy sexual abuse cases, said the church’s “secret” handling of the allegations against Rupnik bore all the earmarks of “an old-time cover-up”, similar to that of Theodore McCarrick, a former archbishop whom the Vatican defrocked in 2019 after finding him guilty of sexually abusing children.
“This case represents not only the church’s continued protection of powerful abusers, but its particular indifference to the sexual abuse of adult women,” said Doyle. “The pope made abuse of vulnerable adults a church crime, but we see little evidence that the new rule has made a difference.”
It is rare for nuns to speak publicly about alleged abuse by priests, an issue that has blighted the Catholic church for decades. There is also scant care for abused nuns, many of whom have been thrown out of their orders and made homeless. Some have claimed to have become pregnant by priests and then forced to have abortions.
Pope Francis is facing some of the most vociferous objection to papal authority in decades, in language that might have stunned past popes.
German Cardinal Gerhard Müller derided the pope’s new guidance allowing priests to bless same-sex couples as “blasphemy.” One Italian priest found himself rapidly excommunicated after he referred to Francis in his New Year’s Eve homily as an “anti-Pope usurper” with a “cadaverous gaze, into nothingness.” Still holding on to his title is Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who recently dubbed the pontiff a servant of Satan and announced a seminary to train priests free from the “deviations of Bergoglio” (Francis’s name before becoming pope).
Some of this resentment is long-simmering. Almost as long as he’s been pope, Francis has been confronted by dissenting church traditionalists. Viganò, for one, has previously called for Francis’s resignation.
The death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had been widely expected to clarify any muddiness about the hierarchy in Vatican City, leaving just one figure wearing papal white within its ancient walls. A year later, the voices questioning Francis’s basic authority have only grown louder, at the same time that bold, legacy-cementing moves by the 87-year-old pope have prompted broader backlash within the church.
Francis is experiencing a level of reproach that some observers say is the fiercest since Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the church’s ban on artificial birth control in 1968. Today’s criticism is further amplified by social and digital media. An even more striking distinction, though, may be the overt disdain some clerics are showing to a man seen by Catholics as the Vicar of Christ atop the Throne of Saint Peter.
“What we’re seeing under Francis is to a very high degree [the kind of dissent] we saw in 1968,” said Austen Ivereigh, the pope’s biographer. “But what’s new is the lack of respect, the lack of deference to papal authority, which has become somehow permissible in this pontificate in a way that I’ve never seen before.”
>The opposition to Francis is “unprecedented,” said John Carr, a former longtime lobbyist for the U.S. bishops conference who founded Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. “It is strong, it is narrow, and it is about power — ecclesiastical, economic and political power.”
“They didn’t say John Paul [II] wasn’t pope. They didn’t say Benedict was illegitimate. This is part of a larger project to undermine his credibility.”
The rise in anti-Francis rhetoric doesn’t seem to reflect or have affected his public standing — his popularity remains the envy of politicians in many countries. But the barrage of criticism presents a direct challenge to his papacy and renews an age-old question for the Roman Catholic Church: How far is too far when you fault a pope?
Blessings for same-sex couples
The number of Catholic clerics loudly and proudly announcing their intent to disregard the pope grew last month after Francis shifted Vatican guidance and authorized priestly blessings of same-sex couples and other “irregular” relationships, as long as those benedictions are kept separate from marriage.
Some clerics heralded the decision as long overdue, a move that puts Francis’s past statements about a more welcoming church into practice. The declaration “is a step forward,” wrote Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, “and in keeping not only with Pope Francis’s desire to accompany people pastorally but Jesus’s desire to be present to all people who desire grace and support.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — at times an epicenter of criticism of Francis — was muted in its reaction, saying in a statement that the pope was simply affirming that “those who do not live up to the full demand of the Church’s moral teaching are nevertheless loved and cherished by God.”
Even some bishops loyal to Francis, however, appeared genuinely confused over how such blessings were meaningfully different from condoning same-sex unions, and how the Vatican could support same-sex blessings while maintaining that homosexual tendencies are “intrinsically disordered” and homosexual acts immoral. The Vatican’s stance is that the new ruling marks an expansion of the role of blessings in the church rather than any acceptance of homosexuality, and that the seconds-long benedictions by no means validate the legal or sexual relationships of same-sex couples.
And then there were those who rejected the guidance outright. TheAfrican bishops conferences issued an extraordinary joint statement on Thursday, attesting to their allegiance to Francis but at the same time saying members could not carry out the blessings he suggested without “exposing themselves to scandals.” Two bishops in Kazakhstan, in a letter forbidding their priests to obey the Vatican edict, “respectfully” said the pope was not walking “uprightly according to the truth of the Gospel.”
“Of course, it is a crisis of authority,” one of those bishops, Athanasius Schneider, said in an interview with The Washington Post. He is critical of bishops who show outright disrespect to Francis, such as Viganò. But, he added, “the pope is losing the firmness of his words and authorities.”
He continued, “If I will be punished for [saying] this, it will be for me an honor, because I will be punished only for the truth.”
The Vatican released an extraordinary “clarification” last week, stating that while bishops and priests could exercise personal judgment in offering such blessings, there were no grounds to consider the declaration approved by the pope “heretical, contrary to the Tradition of the Church or blasphemous.”
And yet two days later, Cardinal Robert Sarah, a senior cleric from Guinea, wrote in apparent defiance: “We are not opposing Pope Francis, but we are firmly and radically opposing a heresy that seriously undermines the Church, the Body of Christ, because it is contrary to the Catholic faith and Tradition.”
Unusually public criticism
Seen as the heirs of Saint Peter, popes possess “supreme, full, immediate, and universal” authority, according to doctrine, over what is today a church of 1.3 billion Catholics. Despite widely held perceptions that Catholics consider popes infallible, they are viewed as such in very rare instances — with the last universally accepted time being in the 1950s, when Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven, body and soul, as a fundamental article of Catholic faith.
Under church norms, clerics may question the pope — albeit in respectful, reasonable ways.
Francis has shown significant tolerance for dissent, but his patience may be wearing thin. In recent months, one critic, Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Tex., was stripped of his diocese. Another, Cardinal Raymond Burke, who frequently spoke at conservative conferences that excoriated Francis, lost his pension and Rome apartment.
“In the case of both Strickland and Burke, the amazing thing is that [Francis] took so long to do it,” said Ivereigh, the biographer. “No previous pope would have put up with anything like that.”
John S. Grabowski, a professor of moral theology and ethics at Catholic University in D.C., said that such criticism is hardly unique in papal history. Consider the 11th-century split between the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches, he said. That was a severe break far greater than anything Francis faces now.
The more frequently cited point of comparison is the 1960s, when the majority of a papal commission on artificial contraception advised approving its use. Shortly afterward, Pope Paul VI, wrote “Humanae Vitae,” a high-level papal document reiterating traditional teaching and classifying the use of the birth-control pill and other artificial contraception as a sin. Some bishops conferences and theologians rejected the document, saying Catholics should honor their own consciences.
The 1968 contraception ruling “was the last big time when we had such a strong disagreement with something that came out of the Vatican,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a political scientist and longtime journalist who has written several books about the inner workings of the Catholic Church. “But bishops did not criticize [Pope Paul VI] so publicly, the way that some of them are with Pope Francis.”
“I’m stunned at the criticism of Pope Francis by conservatives,” said John McGreevy, a historian of Catholicism and provost at the University of Notre Dame. This extremely public nature of papal criticism, he said, is totally new and modern. As contributing factors, he cited a changed media landscape that provides a platform for outspoken critics such as Strickland or Viganò, as well as the rise of populist impulses around the world.
“The attacks on the institution are symbolic of a populism you would have thought Catholicism would be immune to, because it’s the ultimate bureaucratic institution,” he said.
Some experts said the fact that Benedict is no longer around to temper conservative dissent could be working against Francis.
Same-sex blessings were “the first important action [Francis] took after Ratzinger’s death,” said Alberto Melloni, a Rome-based church historian, referring to Benedict by his pre-papal name. “But this time Ratzinger is no longer there to tell the others: ‘Who cares if you don’t like it, he is the pope and you need to obey.’”
The pushback from dioceses on the same-sex marriage ruling stands somewhat apart from the cluster of fringe extremists who have scandalized even lesser critics of the pope with their incendiary language.
The Italian priest excommunicated on Jan. 1, for instance, is part of a group of Roman Catholic priests, many of them now excommunicated, who hold an almost Trumpian belief that Benedict remained the “true pope” even after his retirement, and that Francis has never been legitimate.
In an interview, the priest, Ramon Guidetti, said he had received emails from U.S. lawyers volunteering to appeal his case within the Vatican.
“I’m no expert on geopolitics but I can grasp something,” he said. “There will be presidential elections soon in the U.S., so basically all those Catholics who are against Bergoglio, who do not recognize him as a Roman pontiff, possibly connected to Trump’s movement, have seized on the chance to offer their support.”
Without doubt, the best line to emanate from the Synod on Synoldality is “Excuse me, Your Eminence, she has not finished speaking.”
That sums up the synod and the state of the Catholic Church’s attitude toward change.
In October, hundreds of bishops, joined by lay men and women, priests, deacons, religious sisters and brothers met for nearly a month in Rome for the Synod on Synodality. At its end, the synod released a synthesis report brimming with the hope and the promise that the church would be a more listening church.
Some 54 women voted at the synod. Back home, women are still ignored.
It is not because women quote the Second Vatican Council at parish council meetings. It is because too many bishops and pastors ignore parish councils.
It is not because women of the world do not write to their pastors and bishops. It is because without large checks, their letters are ignored.
The Synod on Synodality was groundbreaking in part because it was more about learning to listen. It was more about the process than about results. Its aim was to get the whole church on board with a new way of relating, of having “conversations in the Spirit,” where listening and prayer feed discernment and decision-making.
Even now, the project faces roadblocks. At their November meeting this week in Baltimore, U.S. bishops heard presentations by Brownsville, Texas, Bishop Daniel Flores, who has led the two-year national synod process so far. His brother bishops did not look interested.
To be fair, some bishops in some dioceses, in the U.S. and other parts of the world, are on board with Pope Francis’ attempt to encourage the church to accept the reforms of Vatican II, to listen to the people of God.
But too many bishops are having none of it.
The synod recognized the church’s global infection with narcissistic clericalism. It said fine things about women in leadership and the care of other marginalized people. Yet the synod remains a secret in many places. Its good words don’t reach the people in the pews.
Ask about synodality in any parish, and you might hear “Oh, we don’t do that here.” You are equally likely to hear “When I” sermons (“When I was in seminary,” “When I was in another parish”), and not about the Gospel.
Folks who were excited by Francis’ openness and pastoral message just shake their heads.
The women who want to contribute, who want to belong, are more than dispirited. They have had it. And they are no longer walking toward the door — they are running, bringing their husbands, children and checkbooks with them.
In the Diocese of Brooklyn, it was recently discovered that Mass attendance had dropped 40% since 2017. It is the same in too many places. The reason the church is wobbling is not a lack of piety. It is because women are ignored. Their complaints only reach as far as the storied circular file.
What do women complain about? Bad sermons, as discussed. Autocratic pastors. And the big one: pederasty. If truth be told, women do not trust unmarried men with their children. Worldwide, in diocese after diocese, new revelations continue. Still.
Many bishops and pastors understand this. Francis certainly does, but he is constrained by clerics who dig their heels into a past many of them never knew. More and more young (and older) priests pine for the 1950s, when priests wore lace and women knew their place. That imagining does not include synodality.
Will the synod effort work? Francis’ opening to women in church management is promising. Where women are in the chancery, there is more opportunity for women’s voices to be heard. No doubt, a few more women there could help.
Getting women into the sacristy is trickier.
While it seems most synod members agreed about restoring women to the ordained diaconate as a recognition of the baptismal equality of all, some stalwarts argued it was against Tradition. Still others saw the specter of a “Western gender ideology” seeking to confuse the roles of men and women.
So, they asked for a review of the research. Again.
Women know the obvious: Women were ordained as deacons. There will never be complete agreement on the facts of history, anthropology and theology. Women have said this over and over.
If there is absolute evidence that women cannot be restored to the ordained diaconate, it should be presented, and a decision made.
— The French Catholic Church is facing new accusations of a sexual abuse scandal within Paris’s Foreign Missions Society, an organisation dedicated to spreading Christianity overseas. As a criminal investigation has been opened into accusations against three clergymen from the group, a FRANCE 24 investigation by journalists Karina Chabour and Julie Dungelhoeff sheds light on the allegations against the society.
Another scandal that the Catholic Church could have done without: three criminal inquiries have opened in France into two priests and one bishop accused of sexual abuse.
The three men accused are all from the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP), an organisation founded in France in the 17th century to convert overseas populations in Asia to Catholicism. Today it claims to have 150 priests based in 14 countries across India, China, Japan and Southeast Asia.
Before the criminal inquiries were announced a FRANCE 24 team (in partnership with the Radio France investigations unit) was investigating the apostolic society to shed light on the inner workings of the prestigious institution suspected of covering up the acts of sexual predators working in its midst.
A series of scandals
The three criminal investigations now open in France concern two former missionaries in Japan, Father Philippe and Father Aymeric, as well as the bishop of La Rochelle, Georges Colomb, who is also the former superior general of the MEP.
They are respectively accused of rape, aggravated rape and attempted rape. They have not yet been charged with any crimes, and so are presumed innocent. Father Philippe and Georges Colomb deny the accusations against them. Father Aymeric did not respond to a request for comment made by FRANCE 24.
In a conversation recorded with Father Philippe’s permission by his accuser, the priest spoke of a “system” which he was introduced into when he was a seminarian with the MEP. He said his superiors initiated him into an active sex culture in which they held influence over him.
“I was a good new recruit… as a sexual object,” he said in tears.
The accusations against Father Philippe, Father Aymeric and Bishop Georges Colomb have all been made by alleged victims in France.
Yet accusations of sexual abuse against MEP members expand well beyond French borders.
FRANCE 24’s investigative team travelled to northwest Thailand, home to the Karen ethnic minority group, where it collected multiple witness statements accusing two priests of sexual aggression towards young children.
A code of silence
For more than 30 years, the village of Chong Kaep, close to the Myanmar border, was home to a boarding school run by Father Tygreat that housed up to 260 Karen children.
When Father Tygreat died in 2007, he left a complicated legacy. Residents in the region continue to celebrate the memory of the MEP missionary who, they say, came to bring knowledge and humanitarian aid.
But the priest’s sexual interest in young children also seems to be well known among locals. He is believed to have spent years offering the promise of a better future in exchange for sexual favours.
Father Tygreat was never investigated by police for his alleged crimes, but another MEP missionary in Thailand, Father Camille Rio, was perturbed by stories he heard about the late priest’s behaviour from a local who claimed to be one of his victims.
Camille Rio alerted his hierarchy within the MEP to the accusations in 2020.
“I was told that they had known about it for several months, that it was obviously all true, but that I had nothing to worry about,” he said. “As our lawyers had been consulted, the MEP was safe.”
Camille Rio said that his contact at the time was Gilles Reithinger, former superior general and current auxiliary bishop of Strasbourg.
Shocked by the response, the priest said he tried to raise the alarm again, multiple times, but to no avail.
At the same time, his relationship with the organisation began to deteriorate. Having returned to France, he is currently being prevented from returning to his mission in Thailand and his future within the organisation seems unclear.
Challenging the system
Asked about tensions between Camille Rio and the organisation, Superior General of the MEP Vincent Sénéchal said: “Father Camille Rio has led a number of projects. Unfortunately, the situation is tense and we hope that it can get better.”
Sénéchal maintained that the accusations against members were isolated incidents. “There is no culture of abuse within the Foreign Missions Society. We do not protect anyone who has crossed the red line of the law here.”
“The fact that one person or another has not respected their celibacy, or that another person has been caught up in individual failings, doesn’t make it systematic,” he said.
At the same time, there are a significant number of accusations that implicate the highest levels of the organisation, and the profiles of the alleged victims often point towards their vulnerability.
In France, one victim was said to have been forced into nonconsensual sexual acts for financial reasons. A victim in Japan who claims to have been raped is on the autistic spectrum.
Attackers allegedly used the homosexuality of some victims – still a potent taboo in the Catholic Church – to their advantage. “If you are Catholic and gay there is shame, so we hide it,” said one whistle-blower. “Making a complaint would mean coming out as gay to everyone.”
Testimonies also claim that MEP members were able to take advantage of the prestigious reputation of their organisation in the eyes of its followers and the church hierarchy.
“At the heart of the Vatican, priests who work for the Paris Foreign Missions Society are given an attentive ear because they operate in areas that are difficult to reach. They are the messengers,” said Sophie Lebrun, journalist for French Christian publication “La Vie”. “They have an aura about them.”
The MEP said it is taking the accusations, which are now the subject of an internal inquiry, very seriously. Sénéchal announced in May 2023 the launch of a vast independent inquiry led by a private external company into abuse at the heart of the MEP since 1950.
Multiple sources in Thailand that spoke to FRANCE 24 indirectly incriminated a second MEP priest, as well as Father Tygreat, who used to work in the country and is still practicing in Asia. Father Camille Rio also reported this priest to the MEP.
The organisation said that an investigation into the priest led by the local superior “had interviewed 11 people and did not establish a credible claim for assault”.
The documentary reveals the limits of this internal inquiry: facing the camera, the superior general of the MEP admits that it has not actively sought out victims due to a belief that doing so would risk forcing them to relive their trauma.
“There’s a difference between going out to find people and saying, ‘you were alive in this year, did anything happen?’ That is a proactive approach,” Sénéchal said. “What we have done is work with the information that we have available to us.”
The accumulation of accusations against the MEP has also not prevented two members climbing the ranks within the French Catholic Church.
Despite multiple warnings sent to his superiors, MEP priest Georges Colomb became bishop of La Rochelle in 2016. He is currently under investigation in France and in June asked to retire from his position during the police investigation.
His successor as superior general of the MEP, Gilles Reithinger, became auxiliary bishop of Strasbourg in June 2021. Reithinger has denied any role in the sex scandals currently affecting the MEP and is not the subject of any legal investigations.
The changes came from new guidelines on sexuality and gender issued by the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland at the close of last month. In a press release, the diocese clarified that the guidelines were a formal policy version of existing church teachings on the subject.
“Since questions of sex, sexuality, and gender identity have become increasingly prevalent in our society, it is our hope that the policy will help to ensure these matters are addressed in a consistent and authentically Catholic manner across our diocesan institutions and diocesan Catholic schools, and that those we serve will have a clear understanding about expectations and accommodations related to those matters,” stated the diocese.
The policy requires parental notification in the case of minors experiencing gender dysphoria or confusion; declares that parental rejection of a child’s preferred pronouns don’t constitute grounds for nondisclosure; bans use of preferred pronouns; restricts bathroom and facility usage to biological sex; prohibits admission of students to institutions, programs, and activities like sports designated for the opposite sex; bans same-sex dates to school dances and mixers; requires students to comply with dress codes aligning with their biological sex; bans any celebration or advocacy of LGBTQ+ ideologies or behaviors, such as Pride flags; and bans gender transitions of any degree, whether social or medical.
The policy acknowledged the existence of gender dysphoria, but rejected the modern belief that feelings determine truth.
“This understanding erases those intentional, embodied distinctions between men and women. As such, this view is contrary to the divinely revealed reality of our true, God-given human nature,” stated the policy.
Under the policy, individuals experiencing gender dysphoria or same-sex attraction would be admitted into their schools and allowed to participate in activities, with the contingency that they don’t openly express their disagreement with Catholic teachings on sex, sexuality, and gender.
Reverend Edward Malesic, the Bishop of Cleveland, stated in an accompanying letter that biological sex coincides with God’s divine plan.
“The human person is a unity of body and soul; we experience the world through our bodies, and it is through the virtuous expression of our bodies that we reveal God,” said Malesic. “Through times of questioning and confusion, we must accompany our brothers and sisters in Christ with compassion, mercy, and dignity so that we might lovingly help them navigate the confusion and arrive at truth.”
Malesic directed those with further questions or concerns to contact the diocese’s Marriage and Family Office. He also noted that the guidance page would be updated regularly with additional information and resources on the subject.
Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb posted on X (formerly Twitter) that he believed the policy represented a “shocking betrayal” of church teachings. Bibb offered his own definition of Christian faith, sans Scripture.
“For me, faith is about universal love and acceptance,” said Bibb. “Instead, the new policy forces LGBTQ+ kids to hide their authentic selves and attend schools in fear of persecution for who they are.”
Ohio’s Democratic minority leader for the Senate, Nickie Antonio, said the diocese should not be given school choice funds over the policy.
“I am extremely disappointed that the diocese has chosen to focus on policies of exclusion over acceptance,” said Antonio. “State taxpayer dollars should not subsidize exclusionary education, and if these policies stand, then the diocese should not accept state-funded vouchers.”