Removing art amid abuse claims would show Church’s commitment to change

4 mins read
Rupnik art
Priests pray during the penitential pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of St. John Paul II the Great in Kraków, Poland, Feb. 24, 2024. The sanctuary's main altar is covered with mosaics created by Father Marko Rupnik, an artist and former Jesuit. (OSV News photo/ courtesy Archdiocese of Krakow Flickr account)

ROME (OSV News) – Calls to remove the artwork of alleged abuser Father Marko Rupnik are growing — and clerical abuse survivors told OSV News the issue speaks volumes about how the Church views them and their pain.

On June 28, letters were sent to bishops throughout the world by five women alleging abuse by Father Rupnik, describing the retention of the ex-Jesuit’s works in churches and shrines as “inappropriate” and wounding to victims. The priest was expelled from the Jesuits for disobedience in 2023 after the order compiled a 150-page dossier of credible accusations against him, believed to involve between 20 to 40 women.

Cardinal O’Malley calls for ‘pastoral prudence’

In a separate June 26 communication, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, told the dicasteries of the Vatican Curia that Father Rupnik is currently under Vatican investigation and entitled to the presumption of innocence. However, he made clear that “pastoral prudence would prevent displaying artwork in a way that could imply either exoneration or a subtle defense” of a person alleged to have committed abuse, “or indicate indifference to the pain and suffering of so many victims of abuse.”

“We must avoid sending a message that the Holy See is oblivious to the psychological distress that so many are suffering,” said the cardinal, writing on behalf of the commission, in his letter.

Cardinal O’Malley also noted that victims and survivors of sexual and spiritual abuse had contacted the commission to express frustration and dismay over the continued use of Father Rupnik’s art by several Vatican offices — among them, the Dicastery for Communications.

A mosaic by Father Marko Rupnik illustrating the Holy Family is pictured in a file photo at the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington. A local Knights of Columbus council in Washington has reportedly called on the supreme council to demand the removal of the mosaics by Father Rupnik, who is accused of sexually abusing nuns as part of his artistic process from the shrine, which is sponsored by the Knights. (OSV News photo/Julie Asher)

On June 21, the head of that dicastery, Paolo Ruffini, told journalists gathered for the Catholic Media Conference in Atlanta that pulling down Rupnik’s artworks from churches and shrines around the world was a “wrong” move.

Just two days after Cardinal O’Malley’s letter to the Curia, Ruffini’s office continued to use a photo of an icon created by Father Rupnik for its June 28 “saint of the day” feature on Vatican News. OSV News confirmed that the original mosaic, depicting St. Irenaeus of Lyon, is located at the apostolic nunciature in Paris.

Allegations against Father Rupnik

Father Rupnik, whose distinctive mosaics are known for their oversized black, almond-shaped eyes, was expelled from the Society of Jesus in 2023 after refusing to obey their measures imposed in response to credible accusations that he spiritually, psychologically or sexually abused some two dozen women and at least one man. However, he remains a priest living and working in Rome as the director of art and dean of theology at Centro Aletti, the religious art community he founded in 1991.

Yet even as Father Rupnik’s case (allegations for which span decades and a number of accusers) is now under Vatican investigation, uninstalling the former Jesuit’s handiwork is an important step that’s critical to demonstrating the Church’s rejection of abuse, survivors told OSV News.

Survivor support

“The continued controversy about Rupnik’s art, highlighted by Ruffini’s recent comments, is emblematic of an ongoing question in the life of the Church today,” said Sara Larson, executive director of Awake, a survivor support and advocacy organization. “When we say we want to be close to victim-survivors, to accompany them in their pain, do we really mean it? Are we willing to listen to survivors and take action based on their needs, or are these simply empty words?”

Larson told OSV News the issue of what to do with the priest’s art is “about Rupnik’s victims first and foremost, but it’s also about abuse survivors and concerned Catholics around the world who are watching to see if the Church really has changed, or if people in power will continue to dismiss the needs of those who have been harmed.”

Alleged victims speak out

At least two of Father Rupnik’s alleged victims have spoken to media about the close connection between the priest’s artistic process and the purported abuse, with one woman — interviewed in December 2022 by Italian media outlet Domani under the name “Anna” — detailing what she called a “descent into hell” with Father Rupnik that began with standing as a model for his pieces, submitting to his spiritual direction, and being coerced into increasingly lurid sexual encounters in his studio and other locations.

“I simply do not understand how the vile sacrilege involved in the very creation of artwork by still-Father Marko Rupnik does not move those who have managed to remain indifferent to the plight of his many victims and to the eternal repercussions of the abuse of sacred authority,” Teresa Pitt Green of Spirit Fire, a Christian restorative justice network that works with the Catholic Church, told OSV News.

“Art ceases to be sacred when you are abusing people in the process of creating it,” Gina Barthel, a clerical abuse survivor based in Minnesota, told OSV News.

Criticism of Ruffini’s comments

Barthel and Larson specifically took exception to Ruffini’s comments on the issue, which Barthel said “could not be more ignorant … lack complete empathy (and) … are deeply troubling, disturbing, insulting and enraging.”

Ruffini’s remark to Catholic journalists and communicators that allegations against Father Rupnik do not involve “abuse against minors” is especially problematic, explained Larson.

“Comments that dismiss the suffering of Rupnik’s victims simply because they were adults when the abuse occurred also highlight a serious lack of understanding of the power dynamics inherent in these situations,” Larson said. “I work with many women who have experienced abuse in their adult years; the psychological and spiritual impact of this abuse is devastating and should not be underestimated. I look forward to the day when my church will acknowledge and respond with compassion to all forms of abuse.”

Calls to remove art

Barthel also volunteered that the Church has plenty of people “who would happily pay to find a remedy to remove that art and replace it with other art in chapels all over the world.” She added survivors would likely do it for free.

“For those in the Church who do not understand why the removal of Rupnik’s art is important, I would challenge them to spend some time listening to those who have experienced abuse — by Rupnik or by any other Catholic leader,” Larson said. “These women and men are the experts on their own healing, and we need to trust them when they share what needs to happen for them to feel safe in the Church.”

OSV News has reached out to both Ruffini and Father Rupnik via email for comment, but did not receive an immediate response.

Gina Christian

Gina Christian is a National Reporter for OSV News.