US cardinal urges Vatican to not seem ‘oblivious’ to victims’ suffering

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CARDINAL O'MALLEY SYNOD
Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley of Boston listens during the assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the Vatican's Paul VI Audience Hall Oct. 10, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Every Vatican office must be sensitive toward those harmed by abuse and should exercise “pastoral prudence” before deciding to display artwork created by an alleged perpetrator of abuse, the president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors told the Roman Curia.

“We must avoid sending a message that the Holy See is oblivious to the psychological distress that so many are suffering,” U.S. Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston said in a letter to all Vatican dicasteries on behalf of the commission.

While the presumption of innocence toward the accused during ongoing investigations into allegations of abuse must be respected, he wrote, the Holy See and its offices must “exercise wise pastoral prudence and compassion toward those harmed by clerical sexual abuse.”

The commission published only excerpts of the cardinal’s letter in a press release published June 28. The complete letter had been sent privately to the heads of Vatican dicasteries June 26.

The cardinal said it was his hope that “pastoral prudence would prevent displaying artwork in a way that could imply either exoneration or a subtle defense” of any alleged perpetrator of abuse “or indicate indifference to the pain and suffering of so many victims of abuse.”

Impact on abuse survivors

“In recent months, victims and survivors of power abuse, spiritual abuse and sexual abuse have reached out to the PCPM to express their increasing frustration and concern at the continued use of artwork by Father Marko Rupnik by several Vatican offices, including the Dicastery for Communications,” the press release said.

“Currently, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith is investigating allegations of the psychological and sexual abuse of several consecrated women by Father Rupnik, who was dismissed by the Society of Jesus in June 2023,” it said.

Laura Sgrò, the lawyer representing five women who have said they were abused by Father Rupnik, also released a letter June 28 asking bishops to remove the priest’s mosaics from places of worship, according to The Associated Press.

Commenting on the question of separating the life of an artist from their work, Sgrò said some of the women said the abuse occurred while they were posing as models for Father Rupnik’s work and at least one nun said the abuse occurred on the scaffolding while installing a mosaic in a church.

Gloria Branciani, the first of the alleged abuse victims of priest-artist Father Marko Rupnik to come forward, is seen during a news conference at the Italian National Press Federation in Rome Feb. 21, 2024. Laura Sgrò, her lawyer, is seen to the left. A former religious sister of the Loyola Community, Branciani discussed the sexual, spiritual and psychological abuse she said she suffered by Father Marko Rupnik, her spiritual director and confessor. (CNS photo/Justin McLellan)

“Let us be clear, this missive doesn’t constitute a judgment about the works of Father Rupnik, but merely a reflection about the appropriateness of their presence in consecrated spaces, dedicated to Our Lord,” the letter said.

The AP said the women did not want to “prejudge the outcome” of the Vatican investigation or to have the mosaics be destroyed. The women requested the artwork be moved out of places of prayer so they “don’t cast a shadow over the spirituality of the faithful,” said the letter.

Meanwhile, the cardinal reminded curial officials in his letter that “Pope Francis has urged us to be sensitive to and walk in solidarity with those harmed by all forms of abuse.”

“I ask you to bear this in mind when choosing images to accompany the publication of messages, articles and reflections through the various communication channels available to us,” he wrote.

Defense of artistic display

The cardinal’s letter and Sgrò’s letter came one week after Paolo Ruffini, the head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication, defended the continued use of Father Rupnik’s artwork in its various media outlets.

Father Rupnik, who is currently under investigation by the doctrinal dicastery, has been accused of sexually, psychologically and spiritually abusing multiple women he came in contact with through his work and ministry. The 69-year-old Slovenian artist founded Centro Aletti, a Rome-based community of artists and scholars, and he co-founded the Slovenia-based Loyola Community, a religious community of sisters, which has since been shut down.

During a question-and-answer session June 21 at the Catholic Media Conference in Atlanta, Colleen Dulle of America Magazine asked Ruffini his rationale for allowing the Vatican’s communication offices to continue to use Father Rupnik’s artwork and if there had been a change in policies.

In an audio recording of that event by OSV News, Ruffini explained that it was not “good” or “Christian” to predetermine the priest’s guilt while there was an active investigation underway.

“As Christians, we are asked not to judge,” he said, adding that it was best to be patient and to leave judging the priest’s case to the competent authorities.

Ruffini also said they were only reusing the images they already had and not adding new ones.

Keeping the priest’s artwork visible is also a question of “civilization,” he said, emphasizing that “it’s not a good thing to mix art” with an individual’s “story” or a culture.

Historical precedents

“What about Caravaggio? What about many other artists?” he asked. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, a famous Renaissance painter, faced arrests for carrying weapons without a permit, numerous accusations of assault and aggression, and a death sentence for killing a man.

“Removing, deleting, destroying art has not ever been a good choice,” Ruffini said. Father Rupnik’s mosaics decorate countless sanctuaries, chapels and churches around the world.

In a follow-up question and comment underlining the pope’s call to be close to victims of abuse, Ruffini said, “The closeness of the church to the victims and the closeness of the church to any victims is clear.”

“But it’s clear also that there is a procedure going on” investigating the allegations, which are “a story that we don’t know, that I don’t know. Who am I to judge the Rupnik stories?” he said.

Ruffini said he was not sure taking down artwork or “throwing stones” would provide healing.

“Do you think that if I put away a photo of an art from my website, our website, I will be more close to the victims?” he asked.

When Paulina Guzik, the OSV News reporter who posed the question, said, “I do think so,” Ruffini replied, “Well, I think you’re wrong. I think you’re wrong. I really think you’re wrong.”

Father Rupnik’s excommunication and expulsion

Father Rupnik had been briefly excommunicated and was dismissed from the Jesuits.

In December 2022, the Jesuits said Father Rupnik was operating under restrictions on his ministry because of abuse allegations and that the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had confirmed he was briefly excommunicated in 2020 for absolving in confession a woman with whom he had had sex. The excommunication was lifted after he apparently repented.

In June 2023 the Jesuits expelled Father Rupnik from the order for refusing to uphold his vow of obedience in regard to restrictions imposed on him and to confront credible allegations of sexually, spiritually and psychologically abusing some two dozen women and at least one man over the course of 30 years.

Even though the Dicastery of the Doctrine for the Faith had decided in 2022 it was not able to proceed with an investigation because the alleged events had occurred past the 20-year window for reporting abuse, Pope Francis waived the statute of limitations in October 2023 and told the dicastery to start a new investigation after the papal safeguarding commission had highlighted “serious problems” in handling his case.

Carol Glatz

Carol Glatz writes for Catholic News Service.