The Vicariate for the Diocese of Rome issued on Monday a statement on its investigation into the artistic community founded by the disgraced former Jesuit Marko Rupnik.
The statement generated considerable criticism, for lauding the Centro Aletti’s “healthy community life without any particular critical issues” and praising its members for “maintaining silence” about the scores of accusations that Rupnik spiritually and sexually abused women, including through overtly sacrilegious sexual acts.
The report also appeared to defend Rupnik, who was expelled from the Society of Jesus earlier this year, and it called into question the Vatican’s decision to briefly excommunicate him for a crime against the sacrament of confession.
To some critics, the Diocese of Rome’s Sept. 18 assessment appeared to back the famous artist, despite dozens of what the Society of Jesus’ own investigator called “highly credible” accusations of sexual abuse.
But apart from those issues, the report raises another serious question.
The diocesan investigator’s report seemed to draw from the files of a sealed canonical criminal investigation, in which the Diocese of Rome played no apparent part.
So how did the investigator access that paperwork?
There are three most obvious possible answers to that question.
Those answers point either to serious lapses in the handling of confidential materials, or to a concerted effort to undermine Rupnik’s conviction and defend his reputation.
The investigation into Centro Aletti was handled by Msgr. Giacomo Incitti, a professor of canon law given the job by the pope’s diocesan vicar, Cardinal Angelo De Donatis.
Incitti’s summary, included in the Sept. 18 report, noted that the canonist had reviewed a “copious” number of documents related to Rupnik.
Incitti said those documents pointed to a problem with the way that Rupnik had been investigated.
“Based on the copious documentary material studied, the visitor was able to find, and therefore reported, seriously anomalous procedures whose examination also generated well-founded doubts about the request for excommunication itself.”
Incitti was talking about a 2019 investigation into the charge that in 2015, Rupnik attempted to sacramentally absolve a sexual partner. That attempted absolution is a major crime in canon law, which must be handled by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Officials in the Society of Jesus say the order forwarded details of the accusation to the dicastery in 2019, when officials say first learned of it.
The dicastery delegated the Jesuit to investigate, and to proceed with a criminal penal process against Rupnik, in which he was convicted of the crime.
The penalty of excommunication — provided by the law — was declared by the dicastery, imposed at the conclusion of the process, and lifted some months later, because Rupnik was reportedly contrite.
But the files related to that case are sealed by the highest kind of confidentiality in the Church — the pontifical secret.
That level of confidentiality is applied with special rigor in cases which involve the confessional, as this one did.
But as part of his visitation of the Aletti Center, Incitti seemingly had sufficient access to the case files to draw his own conclusions about how the process was handled.
In fact, according to the vicariate’s statement, Incitti had enough information to dispute the Vatican dicastery’s declaration of the penalty.
It’s not clear how or why he had access to those files, since the Vicariate of Rome has previously insisted Rupnik was not under its canonical jurisdiction, and was beyond its scope to prosecute.
While Rupnik had “a multi-level pastoral relationship with the Diocese of Rome,” De Donatis said last year, “he is not in a position of hierarchical submission to the Cardinal Vicar at the disciplinary and possibly penal level.”
More to the point, the cardinal said last year, the diocese had only just become aware of accusations against the priest.
Taking the cardinal at his word last December that the vicariate had no previous knowledge of accusations against Rupnik, and no authority to proceed against him canonically, it would seem to rule out the Diocese of Rome having any records of its own concerning a penal process against Rupnik in 2019.
As such, the “copious documentary material” on the case apparently studied by Incitti must have either come either from Jesuit superiors or from the DDF itself.
If access to such files was granted officially, it would represent a striking breach of official secrecy, especially concerning a case involving confessional material. It would raise real questions about why such a decision was taken, given Cardinal De Donatis’ previous insistence that Rupnik’s alleged crimes were not a diocesan problem.
And if access to case files was granted at the official level by either the Society of Jesus or the DDF, it would also make the vicariate’s decision to release publicly Incitti’s criticism of the case and its conclusions an act of calculated antagonism against the Vatican department and the Jesuit order.
But if this is what happened, it is far from clear why De Donatis would, as the pope’s diocesan vicar, choose to publicly pick a fight with Francis’ curia and religious order, and inflame a scandal in his own backyard.
The alternative would seem to be that Incitti did not have access to the canonical case files of Rupnik’s 2019 penal process which led to his brief excommunication and that he instead amassed his own voluminous collection of paperwork in the course of his visitation of the Aletti Center.
If that is the case, it would be remarkable for several reasons, first that he undertook a parallel investigation of a canonical crime out of his jurisdiction, reserved to the DDF, and which had already been settled by the Church’s highest disciplinary authority. And that he did so despite it requiring him to seek to discover details of what transpired in a confessional encounter between a priest and penitent while not having authorization to do so.
In that event, it is even harder to understand why he would do so. And why De Donatis would approve a public and apparently self-motivated attack on the DDF and Jesuit’s process and conclusions, especially given neither he nor Incitti could know if they were operating on the complete information possessed by the dicastery and society.
There is, of course, a third possibility.
It is possible that Incitti was able to examine files from Rupnik’s 2019 canonical process because someone at either the Society of Jesus or the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith leaked them to him without authorization.
That would have allowed Incitti to form his own mind of the process and decision, though depending on the motivations of the leaker they could be formed on incomplete or even selective information intended to lead him to a particular conclusion.
In either event, the possibility of a leak leading to a report and statement from the vicariate challenging Rupnik’s conviction would suggest a concerted effort is underway to champion Rupnik’s cause and perhaps effect a kind of rehabilitation for him.
But in this event, too, and even assuming sincere concerns about Rupnik’s penal process rather than personal partisanship on his behalf, the vicariate’s statement still represents a bold move on the part of Cardinal De Donatis.
For the moment, in addition to prompting a new round of criticism, what the vicariate has achieved in putting itself at the center of the Rupnik scandal, and raising real questions about its investigation, and its cardinal’s judgment.