Alleged victims of Father Marko Rupnik: His art cannot be separated from abuse claims

Gloria Branciani, the first of the alleged abuse victims of priest-artist Father Marko Rupnik to come forward, is seen during a news conference at the Italian National Press Federation in Rome Feb. 21, 2024. Laura Sgrò, her lawyer, is seen to the left. A former religious sister of the Loyola Community, Branciani discussed the sexual, spiritual and psychological abuse she said she suffered by Father Marko Rupnik, her spiritual director and confessor. (CNS photo/Justin McLellan)

TURIN, Italy (OSV News) – For the rector of the world's second largest church after St. Peter's Basilica, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil, May 11 will be a day of celebrating the inauguration of the southern facade's mosaics, all created by Fr. Marko Rupik.

But alleged victims of the disgraced former Jesuit and many faithful are not in celebratory mood. In the midst of a heated debate on what should be done with Fr. Rupnik's mosaics across the globe, OSV News asked whether the art can be separated from the alleged acts of abuse by the Slovenian priest-artist and what should be done with his mosaics decorating iconic churches across the globe.

In December 2022, Rome's Jesuit headquarters, following media reports concerning alleged abuse by Fr. Rupnik, admitted the preliminary investigation found allegations credible as early as in 2019, and in 2020 he was excommunicated for "absolution of an accomplice," referring to when a priest has sex with someone and then absolves the person in confession. The excommunication was lifted after only a few weeks on the grounds that Fr. Rupnik had repented – which he never did, sources told OSV News.

Jesuits admitted under media pressure in December 2022 that at the time restrictions had already been in place (including a ban on celebrating Mass in public or leading spiritual exercises). The fact has never been made public before. The Jesuits announced additional restrictions after December 2022 sexual abuse claims.

Priests pray in front of a monstrance during a penitential pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of St. John Paul II the Great in Kraków, Poland, Feb. 24, 2024. The sanctuary's main altar is covered with mosaics by Father Marko Rupnik, an artist and ex-Jesuit accused of sexually abusing at least 41 women. (OSV News photo/ courtesy Archdiocese of Krakow Flickr account)
Priests pray in front of a monstrance during a penitential pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of St. John Paul II the Great in Kraków, Poland, Feb. 24, 2024. The sanctuary's main altar is covered with mosaics by Father Marko Rupnik, an artist and ex-Jesuit accused of sexually abusing at least 41 women. (OSV News photo/ courtesy Archdiocese of Krakow Flickr account)

In 2023, the Jesuits banned Slovenian-born Fr. Rupnik from continuing his artistic work – before announcing his dismissal from the order in June 2023, effective in July. But the works on the south facade's colonnades went on in Aparecida, despite a 150-page dossier of credible accusations against Father Rupnik, believed to involve between 20 and 40 women.

Alleged victims of Fr. Rupnik told OSV News the planned inauguration of the newest Aparecida facade May 11 appears to be a provocation for them, especially when elsewhere the discussion of dismantling the disgraced artist's works is ongoing in church circles.

In one the most famous world Marian sanctuaries in Lourdes, a commission established in 2023 by Bishop Jean-Marc Micas of Tarbes and Lourdes is to decide whether Fr. Rupnik's mosaics on the facade of Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, installed in 2008, should be removed.

According to sources who talked to OSV News, the committee would have already made the decision, but Bishop Micas reserved the right to communicate it by the end of June.

The Knights of Columbus' Patrick Cardinal O'Boyle Council 11302, based in Washington, reportedly adopted an April 9 resolution urging the fraternal organization's executive leadership to remove and replace mosaics created by Father Rupnik for the St. John Paul II National Shrine, which the Knights established in the nation's capital in 2011. The resolution was disclosed April 16 by The Pillar, which stated it had obtained a copy of the document.

The close link between Fr. Rupnik's artistic work and the abuses he allegedly committed is confirmed by one of his victims, Gloria Branciani, a former religious of the Loyola Community in Slovenia.

It was Branciani who in a first-ever interview by an alleged victim of Fr. Rupnik, published by Italian newspaper Domani Dec. 18, 2022, spoke about a "descent into hell" she experienced for nine years. She recalled how "Fr. Marko at first slowly and gently infiltrated my psychological and spiritual world by appealing to my uncertainties and frailties while using my relationship with God to push me to have sexual experiences with him."

At the February press conference in Rome, she confirmed to reporters she was abused for nine years by Fr. Rupnik, when the Jesuit was the spiritual director of the Loyola Community – one he had helped found with Ivanka Hosta in the early 1990s in Slovenia. Victims testified the abuse included his fondness for three-way sex "in the image of the Trinity."

"In Rupnik, the sexual dimension cannot be separated from the creative experience," Branciani told OSV News, asked about his artistic projects. "In portraying me, he explained that I represented the eternal feminine: His artistic inspiration stems precisely from his approach to sexuality," she explained.

Branciani was Fr. Rupnik's model when she was still a medical student and a frequent guest in his atelier at Piazza del Gesù in Rome.

"He argued that sexuality is transformed and purified in the work of art," Branciani told OSV News.

"My spiritual expectations for a reflection on the relationship between art and liturgy were the door that allowed Rupnik to manipulate me," another alleged victim, Sr. Samuelle, told OSV News.

Sr. Samuelle is a diocesan hermit in a French diocese. From 2008 to 2014, Sister Samuelle lived at Centro Aletti, a place dedicated to religious life and artistic creativity, established by Fr. Rupnik when had moved from Slovenia to Rome.

It is in Centro Aletti where Sr. Samuelle has practiced her craft as a mosaic artist in the atelier led by the former Jesuit.

"On the one hand he told me that I had great artistic talent, on the other he made me understand that if I didn't do what he wanted, he could send me away at any moment," she recalled.

A "psychological torture," in her own words, "erased all confidence" in her. "I was so sick that I no longer knew what I wanted out of life, whether to abandon the religious habit or stop making art," she told OSV News.

Sr. Samuelle explained that Rupnik took advantage of her confusion to overstep the boundaries.

"He would invite me to his apartment late at night for talks and at the end he would hug me tightly," she recalled. "If I pulled back, he would scold me, telling me that there was nothing wrong because he was a priest and I was a nun and everything between us was pure."

The pressure continued even during work on construction sites, at the web of scaffoldings put up in order to complete the set up of mosaics.

"He was sending me kisses while we were among people, he tried to stay alone with me to caress my back and play with my bra, even when we were on the scaffolding," Sr. Samuelle told OSV News.

"He had found a way to control me, and I lived in constant tension," she said.

For Sr. Samuelle, the construction site was the place where Fr. Rupnik approached people sexually. "In Italy and abroad, women who were involved in the making of mosaics could be harassed," Sr. Samuelle said.

"Today that we have the awareness, how can we pray in front of works made by his victims?" she asked.

"Today's mosaics have their roots in the time when he used women as models and half an hour later abused them," she told OSV News.

Sr. Samuelle also pointed out that Fr. Rupnik "learned how to make his drawings 40 years ago, thanks to the sexual assaults on Gloria," she said.

For Branciani, however, the issue of removing Rupnik's works is not an easy one to solve. "The act of destroying his work adds violence to violence," she explained.

"If he admitted his responsibility and the church acknowledged the harm done to the victims, perhaps believers would look at his works differently," she said.

"It is not only a personal problem but also an ecclesial one," Branciani pointed out, adding however that "no one apologized to the victims for what happened."

"I am still waiting for an answer from the church," she bitterly stated.

Meanwhile, on April 3, the alleged victims' lawyer, Laura Sgrò, filed complaints with the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith from five women, including Gloria Branciani, Mirjam Kovac and Sr. Samuelle, regarding entry of judgment and compensatory claims.


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