ROME – Seven months after the Vatican reversed its previous course and opened a canonical inquiry into a famed Slovenian priest and artist, a high-ranking official has said the case, while delicate, is in advanced stages.

Speaking to journalists Wednesday on the margins of a panel on the abuse crisis in Italy, Irish Monsignor John Joseph Kennedy when asked about the status of the inquiry into former Jesuit Father Marko Rupnik, said his department is “working on it, we are at a fairly advanced stage.”

“It’s a delicate case, really, and we are working on it,” he said, saying “we started well, and we are really continuing step after step, keeping all aspects in mind, because there is the aspect of the allegations against him, there is the aspect of the victims, there is the aspect of the impact on the Church, so it’s delicate.”

Secretary of the Disciplinary Section of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), Kennedy is one of the Holy See’s leading authorities when it comes to investigating instances of clerical abuse and handing out punishments for abusers.

The Rupnik case for the past two years has shaken the Catholic Church, in part due to the numerous allegations against him, as well as what many consider to be the Church’s gross mishandling of the affair.

Rupnik, 69, is accused of sexually abusing and manipulating at least 30 different women, most of whom were nuns who belonged to the Loyola Community he helped found in his native Slovenia in the 1980s.

A former member of the pope’s Jesuit order, Rupnik is also one of the Catholic Church’s most renowned modern artists, with countless churches and shrines throughout the world containing his murals, including the Vatican and the famed Marian shrine in Lourdes.

In 2021, nine former members of the Loyola Community complained to the Vatican about Rupnik’s abuse, yet when the allegations against him broke publicly in October 2022, the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, at the time led by Spanish Jesuit Cardinal Luis Ladaria, refused to open a formal canonical inquiry, citing a statute of limitations for the abuse of adults, despite the fact that this provision has been waived in other cases.

Despite the DDF’s decision, the Jesuits barred Rupnik from ministry and imposed restrictions on his travel and commissions for new art projects. In December 2022, they invited anyone with other claims against Rupnik to come forward, which yielded 15 new complaints against him.

After refusing to cooperate with an internal Jesuit inquiry, Rupnik was expelled from the order for disobedience in June 2023.

In mid-September 2023, Pope Francis met a key Rupnik ally, who has publicly called the abuse charges a form of “lynching,” and days later an investigation by the Diocese of Rome essentially gave Rupnik’s Centro Aletti in Rome, where he lived and carried out his art projects, a clean bill of health.

At the time, after being ousted from the Jesuits, Rupnik was incardinated into the Slovenian Diocese of Koper and appeared to be free to carry out his ministry unimpeded. However, in the wake of massive public backlash, Pope Francis in October 2023 reversed course, and waived the statute of limitations on the Rupnik case, allowing a canonical trial to proceed.

In his remarks to journalists, Kennedy said he could offer no further details on the case, but insisted it is a work in progress.

Kennedy also referred to Rupnik’s use of spiritual images and symbolism in his abuse, often styling his abuse as a mystical experience of the divine, something which traditionally in the Church has been referred to as “false mysticism,” and which constitutes a crime against the faith.

Some experts have complained that debate over the term has hampered the prosecution of abusers such as Rupnik, as there is currently no provision in canon law for these crimes.

Argentinian Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the DDF, recently said false mysticism can have a lot of different meanings and is thus “not convenient” as a formal charge in canonical proceedings.

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Kennedy indicated that when it comes to this kind of abuse, “We have crimes, reserved crimes” in the DDF that are each handled differently, since there are currently no specific provisions for them in the Code of Canon Law.

Speaking of the use of false mysticism to commit abuse and its absence from Canon Law, Kennedy said, “Just because it’s not a crime doesn’t mean it’s something good.”

He declined to comment on whether Church law would or should eventually change to include provisions for these kinds of crimes, however, Fernández in his previous comments indicated that this was likely to happen, but whatever the crime is called, it would not be false mysticism.

Kennedy spoke at a May 29 event titled “Abuse of minors: A reading of the Italian context (2001-2021),” which was organized jointly by the Italian Embassy to the Holy See and the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI).

Other speakers included Colombian Bishop Luis Manuel Alí Herrera, secretary of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (PCPM); Archbishop Giuseppe Baturi of Cagliari, secretary general of CEI; Italian laywoman Chiara Griffini, who was recently elected the first woman to serve as president of CEI’s commission for the protection of minors.

During the conference, an evaluation was given of the progress made in handling abuse cases in Italy over the past 20 years, including an analysis of how the situation has changed with the rise of the internet and social media.

Griffini said CEI hopes to conclude a qualitative and quantitative analysis of clerical sexual abuse cases against minors between 2001-2021 by 2025.

For the past two years, CEI has published an annual report on abuse complaints made at listening centers and help lines opened in various dioceses in 2019.

In 2022, CEI offered an anticipation of the number of abuse cases in the past 20 years as the result of a study carried out on the basis of some 613 complaints that CEI sent to the DDF, which is tasked with handling cases of clerical abuse of minors.

Kennedy in his speech explained the step-by-step process of what happens when a complaint reaches the Disciplinary Section of the DDF, saying it is immediately assigned a case number and an evaluation is made of the severity and veracity of the accusations.

He confirmed that Fernández, after his appointment as prefect, only handles doctrinal cases such as heresy, apostasy and schism, and that “he leaves to me and the disciplinary section to handle the cases in which there is abuse of minors,” which is something he said comprises around 77 percent of the dicastery’s cases.

Italy, he said, is currently “in the top ten” countries in the world due to the number of abuse cases coming to light, but that this will likely change going forward.

In his comments to journalists, Kennedy described the abuse crisis as “a wave” that travels and touches different coasts.

Twenty years ago, this wave touched places such as the United States, Canada, Ireland, and several European countries, and “now it is touching Italy, India, the Philippines, Africa, and some countries in Latin America,” he said.

In another 20 years’ time, Kennedy said Italy will likely no longer be in the top 10, “due to the efforts we are seeing at every level of society. In every diocese, and in every religious order, we are truly seeing an effort to combat this thing.”

“I want to have all cases brought to light, so that the Church can be transparent, a source of light, a sign of hope, and a sign of life,” Kennedy said, saying a high number of cases is a good thing, “because people find the courage to report.”

“I’m concerned about the countries where the bishops don’t send us cases. It would be better to have a truck that arrives at the [Holy Office] with all of the cases and we start working, and we clean up the situation,” he said, saying, “We’re like Rome’s AMA service for the whole Church,” referring to the city’s trash collection company.

Kennedy also touched on the need for more transparency in the offering of statistics and in providing status updates for victims and their families on specific cases, saying, “if I had a child who was abused by a priest, I would want to know the status of the case.”

“It’s a question that’s discussed in the office, it’s something to have in mind for the future, but not too distant of a future,” he said.

Asked whether the DDF’s 16 full-time officials handling cases in the disciplinary section are enough, Kennedy said that would like more, “but it’s very difficult because there aren’t many vocations.”

“If a bishop has a priest who is a canonist…he needs him,” he said, saying, “we have 16 officials who work full time day and night, day after day on the same material, which is humanely is not easy, so I will also take advantage to thank them.”

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