My Thoughts on the Vatican’s Defense of Rupnik’s Art

My Thoughts on the Vatican’s Defense of Rupnik’s Art June 24, 2024

Statues of saints in the Vatican on a cloudy day
image via Pixabay

Here we go again.

In case you haven’t heard, the Vatican’s chief comms officer has recently doubled down on the frequent use of icons made by the disgraced former Jesuit Marco Rupnik in their media.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Vatican has repeatedly used pieces of art by Rupnik as clip art on their website, even though he’s currently under investigation for truly appalling sexual abuse of several nuns. The nuns have spoken out publicly on many occasions. The evidence against him is overwhelming. Rupnik was briefly excommunicated for absolving one of his victims and has been thrown out of the Jesuits. His art, which is sentimental and betrays a lack of talent, is extremely distinctive and triggering to victims of sexual abuse all over the world. But it keeps appearing in media put out by the Vatican.

The Prefect of the Dicastery for Communication of the Holy See, Dr. Paolo Ruffini, doesn’t see a problem with this. When asked about it by journalists on Friday, he seemed offended that it was even questioned. He said it was “inspiring” that the Jesuits haven’t chiseled Rupnik’s tawdry art off their walls yet. He ridiculed the idea that if he got rid of the clip art on the website, he would be “more close to victims.” He scoffed “who am I to judge the Rupnik stories?” And he even blurted out “We are not talking about the abuse of minors.”

I wish I could say I was surprised that the Vatican is this flippant about the havoc caused by another sexually abusive cult leader priest, but I’m not. This is how they treat sexual abuse.

There have been a myriad of very good comments and hot takes on this situation, all over Catholic media in the past few days.  I can’t possibly mention them all, but I’ve been trying to re-post as many of them as I can over on my X/Twitter page. I do want to highlight a thread by Paul Fahey, a therapist and a contributor to Where Peter Is. His writings and presentations on abuse of conscience are always worth your time. I thought his take on the Rupnik issue was perfectly stated.

I want to add two observations of my own here. The first is that I think part of the problem with the Vatican is that they’re embarrassed.

Embarrassment fuels a lot of abuse cover ups, in my opinion. No one likes to admit they were duped by a scammer. If you’re in a patriarchal society and at the apex of a hierarchy which you believe gives you authority to tell everyone the will of God, it’s even more embarrassing. If you believe your authority occasionally makes you infallible, it’s unthinkable. Somebody else must be wrong. The lady accusing him must be the problem. This must be an attack from the devil. Any explanation is more likely than the simple one, if you think you can’t possibly be wrong. The cognitive dissonance is just too much.

I’ve seen this happen over and over again here in Steubenville. The Catholic community in Steubenville has prided itself on being the best Catholic community in the United States for at least forty years. The Charismatic cult may have been disbanded in the early 90s, but its notions are still here to this day. Everyone wanted to believe that Father Mike Scanlan was a saint who could do no wrong. Even I wanted to believe it. I still loved him and thought of him as a saint after my years at the university had left me with religious trauma. When he prayed over me, I felt as if I was being healed by the Holy Spirit with the help of a holy man. Admitting otherwise would be unthinkable. It would mean re-thinking the whole culture that grew up around him, my own spiritual life, and everything I’d believed. But bit by bit, the truth came out. Scanlan was not a holy man. Maybe he was a stone cold con artist or perhaps he was so mentally ill he believed his own hype and thought that everything he said was real. But we know that he participated in horrendous spiritual abuse through his “deliverance prayer” and exorcisms. And we know that he covered up the most hair-raising sexual abuse committed by his fellow TORs and by the male students on campus, repeatedly, decade after decade, case after case, re-traumatizing victims and causing so much worse agony. To this day, people still want to downplay who he really was, because it’s embarrassing to admit we were fooled.

I don’t know a shortcut for getting through that cognitive dissonance, and I don’t think the Catholic hierarchy would listen to me if I told them about one. But that’s part of what I see going on here. They can’t admit they were wrong about someone.

There is another factor that I think is at play. You can see it in the remarks about the victims not being children:

The Vatican has settled on a certain narrative about the abuse crisis, and that narrative means that adult female victims don’t count.

For decades, the Church did not admit to any sexual abuse at all. They claimed that it wasn’t happening. Eventually, in the past two decades and change, they’ve had to come clean, a bit. The evidence piled up until it was irrefutable. Catholic priests had sexually abused people and been shielded from punishment by their superiors. They couldn’t just say it wasn’t happening anymore. So the Church had to come up with a different narrative. They finally admitted that they’d been guilty of sexual abuse and cover-ups. But since the victims getting all the press at the time were male, this was painted as the fault of gay men infiltrating the priesthood to prey on teenage boys. They decided that the answer was to keep men with “deep seated homosexual tendencies” from being priests. This allowed them to continue to vilify queer people while looking like they were taking responsibility. And it meant that only a certain kind of victim counts.

I’m not saying it’s easy to be a male victim of sexual abuse. There’s nothing easy about it. Plenty of men and boys still have their abuse covered up and their abusers protected, and that’s a monstrous crime. But I think there’s a unique difficulty in getting justice for adult female victims, because they don’t fit the profile of the type of victim the Vatican has decided exists. They are not altar boys. We can’t blame gay people. We’d have to admit that the real problem is something else.

And here we are, with the Vatican doubling down on hurting victims yet again.

It makes me sick, and it makes me sad.

Let’s all try to make it a more just world.




Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

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