The Society of Jesus on Monday released a letter on the case of Fr. Marko Rupnik, the disgraced religious artist and priest who was expelled from the order earlier this year, after dozens of accusations of sexual abuse of religious sisters came to light against him.
The letter, signed by Fr. Johan Verschueren, S.J., the Jesuits’ superior for the society’s international houses in Rome, explained that since the legal window for appeal has now closed, Rupnik is now definitively expelled from the society.
The artist does, however, remain a priest — albeit without faculties to minister until, and unless, he can find a benevolent bishop or religious order to take him in.
That Rupnik has not been laicized remains a point of scandal for many Catholics, given the decades of serious allegations he faces, as Verschueren acknowledged.
“Many have asked us why a process that could lead to the loss of the clerical state of Marko Rupnik has not been carried out,” the superior wrote. “I would like to remind you here that this is not in itself the competence of the Society of Jesus, but of the Holy See.”
But the Jesuit superior said his own hands were tied.
“As major superior, in the various circumstances of these long and complex events, I have always wanted to be able to initiate a process that could guarantee the judicial assessment of the facts, the right to defense and the consequent sanctions (or possible acquittal), but various reasons, including the current limits of the regulations relating to similar situations, did not allow this,” the priest argued.
Is that the case? Does Rupnik remain a cleric because of a lack of legal leeway for the Jesuits to prosecute him, or does he remain a cleric because of their lack of will to see him removed?
The accusations of his use of his artistic process to groom and sexually abuse religious sisters are graphic and well documented.
But when news of Rupnik’s actions came to light last year, the Society of Jesus clarified two important points:
That in 2019 the society had received an accusation of a grave delict (major crime) committed by Rupnik in 2015, and forwarded it, as the law requires, to the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith and, in the course of that process, other accusations of criminal activity came to light — stretching back years.
While the DDF convicted Rupnik in 2021 of the specific crime for which he’d been referred — attempting to sacramentally absolve a sexual partner — the dicastery also found that the canonical statute of limitations had expired on other accusations against Rupnik, according to the Jesuits, including allegations that could be considered the sexual abuse of vulnerable adults.
As such, the Jesuits said, the DDF imposed the penalty of excommunication for the attempted absolution. That excommunication was then lifted after Rupnik was considered to have repented, but the Jesuits said they could not pursue the other charges even though their own investigation found “the degree of credibility of what was reported or testified to be very high.”
Taken at face value, the Jesuits’ narrative seems to be that when they first learned of a serious allegation against Rupnik, they acted immediately, referred the matter to Rome, and abided by the Vatican’s decision.
Since then, the society says, Jesuit superiors did impose a series of restrictions on Rupnik with the intention of reforming him and ensuring that he wouldn’t pose a danger of reoffending — but Rupnik refused to abide by them, leading to his dismissal from the society.
Apart from that, the society’s argument seems to be, accusations against Rupnik made their way into the public square late last year, but while this has triggered a media storm, it hasn’t altered their legal freedom to pursue old charges against Rupnik covered by the canonical statute of limitations.
All that may be true. But it does not necessarily mean the Society of Jesus could not have pursued a case of laicization against Rupnik, even as recently as this year.
In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI granted special legal faculties to the then Congregation (now Dicastery) for Clergy to handle petitions for the laicization of clerics in certain circumstances not specifically covered by the Code of Canon Law, including instances of priests “who have engaged in seriously scandalous behavior.”
While those special faculties were drafted and promulgated primarily to deal with diocesan priests, not clerical members of religious orders, the Dicastery for Clergy was granted the competence to hear cases involving religious priests, with involvement from the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
Those faculties were subsequently folded into the Code of Canon Law in 2021, when Pope Francis issued a new version of the Church’s penal code, and the competence of the Dicastery for Clergy to hear cases of a religious superior petitioning for the laicization of a priest was underscored by the promulgation of Pope Francis’ apostolic constitution for the Roman curia, Praedicate Evangelium, last year:
“The Dicastery [for Clergy] is responsible for handling, in conformity with the canonical norms, matters having to do with the clerical state as such, for all clergy, including members of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and for permanent deacons, in cooperation with the competent Dicasteries whenever circumstances so demand,” the constitution says.
“The [same] Dicastery is competent for cases of dispensation from the obligations assumed by ordination to the diaconate and priesthood [laicization] involving diocesan clerics and members of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life from the Latin Church and from the Eastern Churches.”
So, while it is true that Rupnik could not be canonically prosecuted for his sexual abuse of women religious in previous decades, owing to the statute of limitations, the Jesuit order could have elected to pursue his laicization at any time for actions committed since his behavior was detected in at least 2019.
In so-called special faculties cases heard by the Dicastery for Clergy, bishops (and religious superiors) often request the laicization of a cleric not for the original — and often most serious — action they are accused of committing, very often a sexual sin, or series of such sins.
Sometimes, this is because the sins are not specifically constituted as crimes in canon law, and sometimes it is because the fact pattern, passage of time, and available evidence makes it difficult to impossible to establish legal guilt to the necessary standard.
Instead, bishops and superiors confronted with legally complicated cases, like Rupnik’s, will impose a series of legal obligations and restrictions on the priest in order to prevent reoffending and safeguard the wider community. But, when priests refuse to abide by these canonical instructions, they can then be legally charged for those violations — and if necessary laicized though appeal to the dicastery.
In Rupnik’s case, Verschueren said in his letter Monday that the Jesuits had “the desire to bind [Rupnik] to his responsibilities in the face of so many accusations, inviting him to embark on a path of truth and confrontation with the evil denounced by so many people who felt hurt.”
“Unfortunately he did not want to accept our invitation and we found ourselves in the need to dismiss him from the Company for the reasons already mentioned elsewhere.”
Those reasons, as the Jesuits have previously stated, included the routine violation by Rupnik of restrictions placed on his ministry and travel by his superiors — essentially the same behavior for which cases of laicization are brought regularly to the Dicastery for Clergy.
While the society decided to proceed with expelling Rupnik from the Jesuits as a consequence, they did not opt to pursue his laicization for the same actions, even though they appear to have had clear grounds to do so, and an equally clear legal mechanism to do it.
It is true that the Jesuits did not have the option of pursuing canonical charges against Rupnik for his apparent sexual crimes committed decades ago. But it is not the case that they had no legal avenue to try to effect his laicization.
With that in mind, it would seem to be a lack of will, rather than legal options, which has now left Rupnik in a strange and, some canonists would argue, risky status of being a cleric without any obvious legal superior willing to take responsibility for him.
Today Rupnik is no longer a Jesuit. Canonically speaking this means that the society has washed its hands of him and is no longer responsible for him or his future actions.
But it also means that Runik is no longer canonically answerable to the Society of Jesus, even though he remains a cleric. And, since he has not been accepted into another order, or incardinated into a diocese, Rupnik does not appear to have any direct ecclesiastical superior at all — or at least, any superior who is willing to take responsibility for him.
Depending on what he does next, this could prove problematic.
Following his expulsion from the Jesuits, Rupnik de iure lost his legal faculties to minister as a priest, though they could in theory be restored if he finds someone willing to take him in. But there remain many things he can do validly, even while prohibited from doing so — including celebrating Mass.
Rupnik could decide to set himself up as a kind of lone-agent, continuing to speak and teach and work as a sacred artist and carve out a kind of autonomous quasi-ministry for himself. And, apart from the scandal this could cause in itself, there is also the possibility he could reoffend.
If he does, and if the need to laicize him becomes acute, it is not clear who, if anyone, would have legal standing to start the case, apart from the Society of Jesus.
Though the Jesuits could still pursue further canonical action against Rupnik, Verschueren seems clear they think he’s no longer their problem, and therefore unlikely to act in future.
While a particular bishop could prohibit Rupnik from operating in his territory, since Rupnik is not incardinated in the diocese, it’s questionable (at best) whether he could ask Rome to laicize him, and Rupnik could close even that possibility simply by moving out of the diocese.
Leaving the Jesuits aside, the only canonical authority to have obvious jurisdiction over Rupnik as a cleric would seem to be Pope Francis personally — meaning that, should the need arise, Francis may have to laicize Rupnik himself, on his own initiative.
In the immediate term, the Jesuits’ decision to expel Rupnik from their ranks, but not laicize him when they had the chance, means that all future questions about the priest’s actions and status would now seem likely best directed straight to the pope.
That is not something Francis is likely to welcome, or to thank them for.