ROME – On Friday, American Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston issued a statement saying he has asked the heads of all offices in the Roman Curia to take down the artwork of a famed priest and artist accused of abusing dozens of adult women.

The statement came from the Pontifical Commission for Protecting Minors (PCPM), for which O’Malley serves as President, and said in that capacity, the cardinal has written to the heads of all Vatican departments asking that “pastoral prudence would prevent displaying artwork in a way that could imply either exoneration or a subtle defense” of alleged abusers “or indicate indifference to the pain and suffering of so many victims of abuse.”

In his letter to Vatican prefects, dated June 26, O’Malley said, “We must avoid sending a message that the Holy See is oblivious to the psychological distress that so many are suffering.”

The statement comes after the head of the Vatican Dicastery for Communications, Italian layman Paolo Ruffini, recently sparked controversy for defending his office’s continued use of the artwork of former Jesuit Slovene Father Marko Rupnik on its website.

Rupnik, 69, whose famed murals adorn chapels and cathedrals around the world, including inside the Vatican and at the Marian shrine of Lourdes, is accused of sexually abusing at least 30 adult women, many of them nuns belonging to the Loyola Community he helped found in his native Slovenia in the 1980s.

Nataša Govekar, who leads the department for Theology and Pastoral activity in the Vatican’s communications dicastery, is a member of the Centro Aletti, founded by Rupnik and which for years has served as his base of artistic operations in Rome.

His case is currently being investigated by the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), after authorities initially refused to lift a statute of limitations allowing an inquiry to take place, before reversing course at the pope’s request last fall.

Last summer, he was expelled from his Jesuit order, the same order to which Pope Francis belongs, after Jesuit authorities found the allegations to be “highly credible,” and after Rupnik refused to collaborate with an internal inquiry.

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During a June 21 question-and-answer session as part of his keynote speech at the Catholic Media Conference in Atlanta, Ruffini was asked why his office continued to use Rupnik’s artwork on its website, despite the various allegations against Rupnik, and the DDF’s ongoing investigation.

In response, Ruffini said the investigation into Rupnik had not yet been completed, saying, “who am I to judge the Rupnik stories?”

He also said that “we’re not talking about minors,” and said that as Christians, “we are asked not to judge.” He also suggested that taking down the artwork would not signal any further closeness to victims and, when challenged by the audience on this, said, “I think you’re wrong.”

Ruffini’s remarks were met with a wave of immediate backlash, with many observers and survivors of clerical abuse calling them insensitive and a sign that the church has learned nothing since the abuse scandals first exploded.

In their statement, the PCPM said they have been contacted by numerous victims and survivors of sexual abuse and abuses of power and spirituality who have voiced “increasing frustration and concern at the continued use of artwork by Father Marko Rupnik by several Vatican offices, including the Dicastery for Communications.”

O’Malley in his letter said the presumption of innocence while the DDF’s inquiry is still active ought to be respected, but insisted that the offices of the Holy See must “exercise wise pastoral prudence and compassion toward those harmed by clerical sexual abuse.”

“Pope Francis has urged us to be sensitive to and walk in solidarity with those harmed by all forms of abuse,” he said in the letter, asking the prefects “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.”

A longtime observer of the Vatican and its engagement in child protection agreed to speak to Crux about Ruffini’s remarks on the condition of anonymity, taking a critical edge.

The very least that victims and survivors of clerical abuse expect, they said, is that “the Vatican and any Church communication don’t continue to use images of Rupnik’s works, at least as long as the investigation against Rupnik goes on.”

“Survivors and their supporters have made it very clear in their statements that they are outraged, as it shows them precisely this: empty words of closeness and understanding while doing just the opposite, all the more as he is the head of the Holy See communication office,” the observer said.

Ruffini, they said, is right that one ought to wait until the final verdict before passing judgement, and that until then, there are only allegations.

However, the observer said that at this point, the allegations appear to be “pretty substantial,” and that the overwhelming reaction to Ruffini’s remarks illustrates that “there are other aspects in it, not only legal or canonical ones.”

“Prudence would suggest that the use of these images is suspended for the time being,” the observer said, saying there are many who believe that Ruffini is strongly influenced by Govekar, who has remained loyal to Rupnik throughout the scandal over the allegations against him.

The observer also took issue with Ruffini’s apparent dismissal of the allegations since they involve adults, rather than minors, saying, “Abuse doesn’t know age.”

“Any distinctions about whether this or that type of abuse is hurting more, are offensive,” they said, saying Ruffini’s statement “is precisely the type of language that hurts many adult survivors of abuse of power and of sexual abuse in the church.”

“It is astonishing how deeply seated this type of attitude is,” the observer said, saying more “can and needs to be done” in taking the abuse of adults in the church seriously, “especially in the area of implementation of what the church has in its own law and in view of the many declarations of apology and reparation.”

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