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Pope Francis waives statute of limitations in Rupnik case

The mosaic artist Fr. Marko Rupnik will face a canonical process over allegations of sexual, psychological, and spiritual abuse against women religious, the Vatican announced Friday, in an apparent about-face.

The Vatican has not formally specified the charges Rupnik will face, and the Vatican’s press office has declined questions on its statement. 

The Holy See press office said Oct. 27 that the process would take place after Pope Francis decided to waive the statute of limitations on the claims, amid a worldwide outcry after it emerged this week that Rupnik had been accepted into a diocese in his native Slovenia after being expelled from the Jesuit order.

The press office said that in September the pope had been informed of “serious problems” in the Vatican’s handling of the case by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, a Vatican body dedicated to the safeguarding of minors and vulnerable adults. 

The press office noted that the pope had “consequently” asked the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith to review the case, but it did not specify when he had made the decision.

The Vatican’s full statement said: “In September, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors brought to the pope’s attention that there were serious problems in the handling of the Fr. Marko Rupnik case and lack of outreach to victims. Consequently, the Holy Father asked the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith to review the case, and decided to lift the statute of limitations to allow a process to take place.”

“The pope is firmly convinced that if there is one thing the Church must learn from the Synod it is to listen attentively and compassionately to those who are suffering, especially those who feel marginalized from the Church.”

At a press conference Friday, Vatican communications prefect Paolo Ruffini told journalists that he had “nothing to add” to the Vatican’s statement on the matter.


What will happen now?

Rupnik is accused of abusing multiple religious sisters over a period of years, thanks to their willingness to come forward. But exactly what canonical charges he will now face is not clear.

The pope has instructed the DDF to waive the canonical statute of limitations “to allow a process to take place,” but it isn’t clear at what stage that process will begin.

Canonically,  the first part of a criminal investigation is a preliminary investigation meant only to establish if there is a minimum semblance of truth to the allegations to merit a full legal process. 

In Rupnik’s case, such a preliminary investigation would appear to be redundant several times over. 

The Society of Jesus has already, according to its superiors, conducted a lengthy investigation into Rupnik’s alleged abuse and found a “high degree” of evidence against him. 

The DDF, for its part, has previously examined the allegations against Rupnik and declined to waive the statute of limitations to allow a prosecution to go forward, but in doing so essentially confirmed there was otherwise a case for the priest to answer.

Since it is unlikely the process will begin with a preliminary investigation, the next step will likely be the filing of formal criminal charges.  

The immediate question raised by Rupnik’s case and pending canonical process is: What charges will he face?

Although several religious sisters have come forward to allege spiritual and sexual abuse by Rupnik, the abuse of a vulnerable adult is not, in itself, a crime reserved to the DDF to prosecute. 

The Vatican’s doctrinal department does have a disciplinary section charged with handling the most serious criminal cases in canon law, but it only handles crimes against the faith and sacraments and the clerical sexual abuse of minors. Cases involving “vulnerable adults” are only handled by the DDF when they involve adults with severe developmental disabilities.

Rupnik was previously convicted and punished for attempting to absolve a sexual partner, a crime against the sacrament of confession. 

It is unclear if the DDF will pursue more charges of the same crime against Rupnik now, or if he will face new charges, possibly including solicitation in the confessional. 

However, once the DDF has established competence in the case because of a reserved crime, it is also the competent department to oversee prosecution of all connected crimes, meaning that if Rupnik faces prosecution for a crime against the sacrament, the doctrinal department can also often prosecute him on attendant charges of sexual coercion and abuse.

That scenario seems most likely, in light of the myriad allegations of forcible sexual abuse Rupnik faces.

The priest could also face a trial in his new Diocese of Koper, depending on where different instances of abuse are alleged to have taken place and if the DDF chooses to delegate the legal process.  

The speed with which Rupnik’s canonical process could now proceed is also unclear. 

Canonical investigations and prosecutions of crimes alleged to have taken place several years ago, beyond the statute of limitations, often take months or sometimes years to fully investigate. But in Rupnik’s case, the Society of Jesus has already conducted an extensive investigation and identified and interviewed dozens of his alleged victims and witnesses, meaning much of the more time-consuming work has already been done. 

In some circumstances, where the evidence is especially clear and the accused has had the chance to defend themselves, canon law allows for the use of an accelerated extrajudicial process, instead of a full canonical trial. 

Such a process was used by the DDF in the prosecution and laicization of the former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whose entire canonical process at the DDF lasted just over one year.

Like Rupnik, McCarrick faced a number of public accusations of grave crimes of sexual abuse. But, despite the accelerated process used to prosecute and convict the former cardinal, the Vatican department did not state publicly the exact crimes for which McCarrick was convicted.

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‘Descent into hell’ 

Rupnik has been the focus of a scandal that has rocked the Catholic world since November 2022, when Italian blogs reported that the 68-year-old had been accused of abusing women religious in the 1990s.

One alleged victim, whose name was withheld to protect her privacy, described her experience with Rupnik as a “descent into Hell.”

Searching questions have been raised about the handling of the case — known as the Rupnik affair — by the Jesuit order, the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Pope Francis.

Amid the case’s complex twists and turns, the Slovenian priest was briefly excommunicated for attempting to absolve an accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment, which effectively means having illicit sexual relations with a partner, and then hearing their confession about it.

The Jesuit order has said that in October 2022, the DDF decided not to pursue canonical charges against Rupnik over the allegations from women religious dating to the 1990s, because the relevant statute of limitations — called “prescription” in canon law — had run out and they chose not to waive it.

In his lone public comment on the affair in January this year, the pope told AP that he had intervened only to ensure that the accusations from the women religious were considered by the same tribunal that heard the excommunication case.

He said that he had decided to “let it continue with the normal court, because, if not, procedural paths are divided and everything gets muddled up.”

“So I had nothing to do with this,” he commented, describing the allegations against the artist as “a big surprise, and a wound.”

Slovenia’s Diocese of Koper confirmed reports this week that Rupnik had been incardinated in the diocese. 

While some have speculated the decision may have been driven by legal necessity, that Rupnik had to be incardinated into a diocese to face prosecution, this is untrue, since the DDF was always competent to waive prescription and receive allegations against a cleric for a reserved crime. 

In an Oct. 26 statement, the Koper diocese said that its Bishop Jurij Bizjak had welcomed Rupnik — who was born in the diocese — partly because he had “not received any documents of Rev. Rupnik having been found guilty of the alleged abuses before either an ecclesiastical tribunal or civil court.”

The diocese added that “as long as Rev. Rupnik has not been found guilty in a public trial in court, he enjoys all the rights and duties of diocesan priests.”

The diocese’s decision was widely criticized, including by Dan Juvan, Slovenia’s State Secretary at the Ministry of Labour, Family, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities.

According to local media, Juvan said that the Church should be held accountable for abusers in its ranks, rather than rewarding them with positions in dioceses.

According to the Italian Catholic website Silere non possum, Bishop Bizjak discussed Rupnik’s incardination request with Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, the Vicar General of His Holiness for the Diocese of Rome, and the canon lawyer Giacomo Incitti, who gave the Aletti Center, Rupnik’s former artistic community, a clean bill of health in September following an investigation.

A Sept. 18 statement from the Vicariate of Rome also suggested there were “well-founded doubts” surrounding the process leading to Rupnik’s excommunication.

Maria Campatelli, the Aletti Center’s current director who has publicly defended Rupnik, had a private audience with Pope Francis days before the statement was issued.

The Society of Jesus announced in June that it had decided to expel Rupnik due to “his stubborn refusal to observe the vow of obedience.”

The Jesuit order said that in February it had received a dossier containing “numerous complaints of all kinds” against Rupnik, relating to alleged incidents of abuse over more than 30 years.

Rupnik’s superiors determined “the degree of credibility of what was reported or testified to be very high.”

The order said that Rupnik had 30 days to appeal the decision, beginning June 14, the date that he received the decree of dismissal.

Fr. Johan Verschueren, S.J., Rupnik’s former superior in Rome, told AP this week that he had contacted Bishop Bizjak after hearing that the Koper diocese was willing to accept the priest.

Verschueren said: “I immediately wrote an exhaustive letter to the bishop about the situation and the many complaints or cases we were dealing with, and I asked him whether he would maintain his offer after having been informed by it.”  

Rupnik was well known in the Church as the director of the Aletti Center, an institute founded in the 1990s at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome as a center of art, theology, and culture.

His mosaics decorate some of the most popular Catholic pilgrimage destinations, including Lourdes and the crypt chapel in San Giovanni Rotondo, which contains Padre Pio’s tomb.

In 2020, Rupnik preached a Lenten meditation for priests working in the Vatican. He had a private audience with Pope Francis in January 2022, and received an honorary doctorate from a Catholic university in Brazil in November 2022 that was later revoked.

Despite facing a rising number of allegations of spiritual and sexual abuse, Rupnik continued to maintain a public profile, concelebrating Mass at a basilica in Rome in March. He also remained an official adviser to several Vatican departments.

The Italian newspaper Domani reported that Rupnik defied restrictions by undertaking work trips to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. 

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors said in an Oct. 27 statement: “The Holy Father’s decision to allow a canonical trial to proceed in the Rupnik case is crucial, not only for the victims but for the whole Church. As a Commission, we remain concerned about the Church’s disciplinary processes and its inadequacies. We will remain watchful in ensuring the adequate administration of justice.”

“There is no room in ministry for those who would violate so profoundly those entrusted to their care. We urge all those who exercise any form of leadership to ensure that our Church is a place of welcome, understanding and care for everyone, with a preference for those who are marginalized in our Church."

The pontificial commission added: “As the Synod comes to a close, we repeat the important role that a culture of safeguarding should play in any theology of ministry, leadership or worship. The core of the Church’s mandate is to render everyone safe, to protect the vulnerable from whatever threatens them, and to lead them to the fullness of life known through God’s own promises.”

Editor’s note: This report was updated Oct. 27 with quotations from a statement by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

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