ROME – In the wake of a surprise announcement Friday that Pope Francis has waived a statute of limitations in Church law to permit prosecution of Slovenian priest-artist and accused sexual abuser Father Marko Rupnik, survivors and advocacy groups are raising questions about why it took this long to act, and insisting that symbolic gestures aren’t enough.
Victims “need justice, not talk,” said Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins, a former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors who resigned in protest in 2017.
For over a year, the furor surrounding Rupnik, perhaps contemporary Catholicism’s most famed muralist, who has been accused of sexually assaulting around 25 adult women over a thirty-year period, has plagued the Church, in part due to several question marks over the handling of the case.
The Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) initially declined to open canonical proceedings, citing a canonical statute of limitations for the abuse of adults, which had previously been waived in other cases, making the pope’s announcement Friday a seemingly complete about-face on the issue.
An internal inquiry conducted by the Jesuit Order concluded that the allegations were “highly credible” and culminated with the expulsion of Rupnik from the order in June for disobedience, as he refused to comply with orders from his superiors.
On Sept. 15, Pope Francis met privately with a known Rupnik ally, and three days later, the Diocese of Rome gave the Centro Aletti founded by Rupnik a clean bill of health three days later.
Despite being kicked out of the Jesuits over the summer, the Diocese of Koper in Slovenia announced Oct. 25 that Bishop Jurij Bizjak had accepted Rupnik into the diocese at the end of August.
According to a statement from Slavko Rebec, Vicar General of the Diocese of Koper, Bizjak accepted Rupnik “on the basis of the decree on Rupnik’s dismissal from the Jesuit order and on the basis of Rupnik’s application for admission to the Diocese of Koper, on the basis of the fact that Rupnik had not been sentenced to any crime.”
“Everyone who is accused of a criminal act has the right to be considered innocent until he is found guilty in accordance with the law, in a public proceeding in which he is given all the opportunities necessary for his defense,” the statement said, quoting the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights.
“As long as Rupnik is not given the said court verdict, he enjoys all the rights and duties of diocesan priests,” the statement said.
Prior to accepting Rupnik, Bizjak reportedly consulted with the Vatican’s nuncio to Slovenia, Archbishop Jean-Marie Speich, as well as the Vicar of Rome, Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, and Italian canon law professor Giacomo Incitti.
Once news broke of Koper’s acceptance of Rupnik with no restrictions on his ministry despite the allegations against him and regardless of his expulsion from the Jesuits, it was met with immediate backlash from abuse survivors and victim advocacy groups.
In an Oct. 26 post on the social media platform X, previously called Twitter, Collins noted that it is the year 2023 and “nothing changes in the Catholic Church. So much talk and so little actual change. Why do we persist in listening to the platitudes and promises.”
Collins in a second series of posts Oct. 27 said that it is time for the PCPM after 10 years “to stop talking and make a stand.”
“If there is nothing it can do to bring in real accountability and zero tolerance to the facilitating of abusers like #Rupnik in the Church then what is the point in carrying on,” she said, saying she resigned from the body six years ago “as I felt it’s work was getting nowhere because of clericalism and internal resistance to change within the Vatican.”
“Looking at #Rupnik it is no different now and with the move of the PCPM into the Curia it is even less likely to succeed,” she said, noting that the PCPM as part of Pope Francis’s reform of the Roman Curia was formally incorporated into the DDF.
The Survivors Network of the those Abused by Priests (SNAP) also condemned the decision to allow Rupnik to practice ministry in Koper, calling the decision “absolute madness” and a “a telltale sign that while the Church continues to say they have changed, their actions belie it.”
“It also reinforces that we need to continue our fight for justice and accountability. Catholic officials are once again protecting a prominent priest instead of supporting the brave survivors who came forward, as well as preventing future victims,” the organization said.
Calling Rupnik a “dangerous predator” made bolder by “the fact that his actions have resulted in no permanent consequences,” SNAP said they could not fathom “why any bishop would put the women in his diocese in harm’s way like this.”
It not only discourages other adult victims of abuse from coming forward, but “It is also a slap in the face to all the brave women who did speak out against Fr. Rupnik, and will add to the burden of pain they already carry,” the statement said.
On Oct. 27, the Vatican issued a statement announcing that following a meeting with members of the PCPM and Rupnik’s victims in September, “serious problems in the handling” of the case were brought to the pope’s attention, prompting him to lift the statute of limitations thus allowing canonical proceedings to begin.
In a post to X following the announcement, Collins voiced doubt as to the efficacy of the move, saying, “What is the point of this? To ‘listen’ to the victims while their abuser is put back into ministry! The world can see how they have been treated by the Church. They need justice not talk.”
The Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA) advocacy group also weighed in, saying they have “long contested” the fact that Vatican policy requires papal intervention to waive the statute of limitations.
Earlier this month the group proposed a new Zero Tolerance law mandating the permanent removal from the priesthood of any priest found guilty of abusing children or vulnerable adults, and any bishop who intentionally concealed the abuse. The proposed legislation also exempts any instance of sexual abuse from a statute of limitations.
ECA has questioned why Rupnik’s victims were not considered “vulnerable adults,” as there was a clear power deferential, given that most of the alleged victims belonged to the “Skupnosti Loyola” or Loyola Community Rupnik co-founded in Slovenia in the 1990s, as well as the fact that Rupnik was also a famed and globally celebrated artist.
“Furthermore, he integrated the symbols and doctrinal teachings of Catholicism into the sexual, spiritual, and psychological abuse he inflicted on his victims,” ECA said.
The refusal to recognize the vulnerability of the women who came forward, the group said, “echoes a long pattern of the Vatican’s declination to treat abuse of women as a crime that merits removal from ministry.”
“The Pope’s about-face today was surely compelled by the scathing public criticism he has received for his apparent complicity in this case,” they said.
ECA recalled a similar instance in which the pontiff in 2018 initially refused to listen to abuse victims in Chile when they accused Bishop Juan Barros Madrid of coverup, accusing them of “calumny,” only to reverse course amid public backlash and launch an investigation that eventually ended in Barros’s removal and prompted all of the country’s bishops to tender their resignations.
“Rupnik’s case is now in the hands of the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF),” an entity they said has “permitted and facilitated” abuse around the world.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen