ROME – As the abuse case of famed Slovene priest and artist Father Marko Ivan Rupnik continues to perplex Catholics around the globe, experts have warned that a perceived gap in Church law regarding an offense known as “false mysticism” is preventing him and other alleged abusers from facing prosecution.

However, some observers believe that a recent case out of Spain could set a precedent needed for these cases to be more swiftly and thoroughly handled in the future.

Perhaps contemporary Catholicism’s most famed muralist, Rupnik, 68, is accused of engaging in sexual, psychological and spiritual abuse of at least 25 adult women over a 30-year period. For over a year now, the case has plagued the Church in large part due to several question marks over how it’s been handled, including the response of Pope Francis himself.

Despite the quantity of allegations against Rupnik, and despite a brief excommunication in 2020 for allegedly using the confessional to absolve a woman with whom he’d had sexual relations, the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) initially declined to open canonical proceedings beyond the initial excommunication, citing a statute of limitations in the Church’s Code of Canon Law for the abuse of adults, which had previously been waived in other cases.

An internal inquiry conducted by the Jesuits concluded that the allegations were “highly credible” and culminated with the expulsion of Rupnik from the order in June for disobedience, on the basis that he had failed to comply with the investigation and refused to obey orders from his superiors.

Despite that finding, critics charge that Francis appeared nonchalant about the accusations, including granting a Sept. 15 audience to a longtime Rupnik ally who’s publicly termed the charges against him a “lynching.”

Three days later, the pope’s own Diocese of Rome gave the Centro Aletti, founded by Rupnik, a clean bill of health, flagging what it said in a statement were “gravely anomalous procedures” behind Rupnik’s excommunication in 2020 and raising “well-founded doubts” about the decision.

A month later, the Diocese of Koper in Slovenia announced that Rupnik had been incardinated there as he had not been charged with any crime, a step many observers believe would not have been taken without at least a tacit indication from someone in the Vatican that it was acceptable. The move suggested that Rupnik would remain a priest in good standing and could continue his art and ministry largely unencumbered.

Yet shortly afterwards, Francis appeared to change course. A Vatican statement said that following an appeal from the pope’s own Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Francis had decided to lift the statute of limitations in order to allow a canonical trial to proceed against Rupnik.

In attempting to decipher the seemingly baffling course of the Rupnik case, some observers suggest that a key element is the fact that, like some other notorious abusers in modern times, Rupnik weaved spiritual symbolism and imagery into his alleged pattern of abuse, styling his sexual contact with the women he reportedly assaulted as part of a mystical experience.

Traditionally such conduct has been called “false mysticism,” and it is considered a crime against the faith, though without a clearly defined legal standard. For centuries, the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), historically known as the “Holy Office,” has been tasked with prosecuting these crimes.

Article 10 of the 1995 edition of the DDF’s Regolamento, or rules, which were signed by then-prefect Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, states that the disciplinary section within the DDF “deals with crimes against the faith, as well as the most serious crimes, in the judgement of the superior authority, committed against morality and in the celebration of the sacraments.”

The dicastery, it says, is responsible for a variety of problems and behaviors related to the discipline of the faith, such as “cases of pseudo-mysticism, of alleged apparitions, of visions and messages attributed to supernatural origins, of spiritism, magic and simony.”

Yet the precise nature of those crimes isn’t delineated in the Regolamento or other documentation, creating what some legal experts regard as an “eye of the beholder” standard that has rendered investigators hesitant to launch cases for fear of ending in a legal morass.

The list of individuals accused of sexual abuse which incorporates elements of false mysticism is growing, including prominent cases such as Italian layman Piero Alfio Capuana, the head of a lay association in Sicily who calls himself the “Archangel.”

Canonical experts consulted by Crux have acknowledged that there is no specific norm within canon law, including its newly revised penal code, that handles crimes against the faith, including false mysticism.

However, these experts have said that while these crimes are complicated, there are still avenues for prosecution under the more generic umbrella of “abuses of power.”

Some critics of the Vatican’s response to situations such as Rupnik’s say that whatever legal lacuna may exist, the failure to act more aggressively is less about a lack of law than a lack of will.

Speaking to Crux, Spanish Father Fernando Puig, a professor of Canon Law at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, said crimes such as false mysticism fall within the specific competence of the DDF, and “the hope is that soon the DDF will prosecute cases, so there is a precedent.”

A recent case out of Spain could potentially aid in setting this precedent.

Last week, 82-year-old Franciscan Father Francisco Javier Garrido Goitia was convicted by the tribunal of the Apostolic Nunciature in Spain on two counts of “false mysticism and request for confession,” encompassing the abuses of power and conscience, as well as sexual abuse against nuns.

Garrido Goitia was barred from exercising ministry, including spiritual direction, and was prohibited from publishing books or articles. According to the decree, he has no right of appeal.

Beyond the specific issue of false mysticism, the Rupnik case also highlights a gap between a relatively firm and clear response by the Church to the sexual abuse of minors, and a more ill-defined and uneven approach when the abuse concerns adults and “vulnerable persons.”

According to one of Garrido Goitia’s victims, who spoke to Spanish media, “the abuse of adults is not understood and is thought to be consensual.”

While the victims in these cases are adults, the victim insisted they are nevertheless in “a vulnerable situation … manipulated in the name of God to commit abuse of power, conscience, and spiritual and sexual (abuse).”

Whatever happens with Rupnik going forward, many questions still remain, including with regard to the perceived discrepancy between the Jesuits’ investigation and the Diocese of Rome’s statement apparently absolving Rupnik and his Centro Aletti of any wrongdoing.

Officials inside both the Vatican and the Vicariate of Rome have speculated that part of the explanation may be political, citing a longstanding rift between Pope Francis and the vicar of Rome, Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, that dates back to the COVID-19 pandemic, when De Donatis ordered churches closed one day and then reopened them the next after an intervention by the pope.

An official in the vicariate, speaking on background, told Crux the Sept. 18 statement clearing Rupnik and the Centro Aletti came from De Donatis personally and was ordered to be published immediately, and that no one had been made aware of it beforehand, nor had there been an opportunity to vet the statement or its potential consequences.

Some observers say that De Donatis is a longtime supporter of Rupnik and his Centro Aletti, suggesting his objectivity may have been compromised. Similar charges have surrounded the former number two official in the DDF, Italian Archbishop Giacomo Morandi, who was ousted from his post as secretary last year and given charge of the Diocese of Reggio Emilia-Guastalla.

As the case against Rupnik is sorted out, his precise whereabouts remain unknown. It’s believed he divides his time between Italy and Slovenia, spending time in Koper, Rome and Udine, Italy, where many sponsors of his work are located.

It remains to be seen what specific charges, if any, the DDF will opt to pursue against Rupnik – including whether the contested issue of “false mysticism” may be among them.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen