Pope Francis orders Vatican to reopen case of priest accused of adult abuse but allowed to keep ministering

FILE - Pope Francis speaks during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at The Vatican, on Oct. 18, 2023. A famous priest-artist who was thrown out of the Jesuits after being accused of sexual, spiritual and psychological abuse of women has been accepted into a diocese in his native Slovenia. The Jesuits said Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023 they had provided the diocese of Koper, Slovenia an “extensive letter” outlining the allegations against the Rev. Marko Ivan Rupnik and notice that he had been convicted and excommunicated for committing one of the most serious crimes in the Catholic Church. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, File)

ROME -- Pope Francis has ordered the Vatican to reopen the case of a well-known priest-artist accused of sexually, psychologically and spiritually abusing adult women, and removed the statute of limitations on their claims, the Vatican said Friday.

The announcement marked a major turnaround for the Holy See and followed an outcry among victims and their advocates over the handling of the case of the Rev. Marko Ivan Rupnik, a former Jesuit whose mosaics grace churches and basilicas around the world.

The scandal has been a headache for the Jesuits, the Vatican and Francis himself due to suspicions that Rupnik received favorable treatment from the Holy See, where a Jesuit is pope and other Jesuits head the sex crimes office that investigated Rupnik and declined to prosecute him because the claims against him were deemed too old.

A Vatican statement said Francis' abuse prevention commission had flagged "serious problems" in the way his case was handled initially, particularly in the "lack of outreach to victims." That terminology was significant because church authorities previously refused to even consider women with claims against Rupnik as "victims."

Francis asked the Vatican's Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles abuse-related crimes according to church law, "to review the case and decided to lift the statute of limitations to allow a process (trial) to take place," the statement said.

Rupnik, a Slovene priest, was declared excommunicated by the Vatican in May 2020 for one of the most serious crimes in the Catholic Church's legal code: using the confessional to absolve a woman with whom he had engaged in sexual activity.

But when nine more claims against him were presented to the Vatican a year later, dating from 30 years ago, the sex crimes office refused to waive the statute of limitations against him. The dicastery office, where a Jesuit priest is the prosecutor, also decided not to investigate him on trial for other allegations such as false mysticism that aren't subject to time limits.

The Jesuit order kicked him out this summer after even more adult women came forward accusing him of sexual, psychological and spiritual abuses. After conducting their own investigation, the Jesuits said they found the women's claims to be "very highly credible." But they said the Vatican's canonical norms in force at the time of the alleged abuse precluded harsher punishment.

In a Jan. 24 interview with The Associated Press, Francis denied he had any role in the handling of Rupnik's case, other than to intervene procedurally. However, he reaffirmed the decision not to waive the statute of limitations in the case, saying he always lifts time limits for abuse of minor cases, but not those involving adults.

He expressed surprise and dismay at the claims against such a prominent artist, but appeared to also understand the abuse dynamic the women described.

"A personality who seduces, who manages your conscience, this creates a relationship of vulnerability, and so you're imprisoned," he said then.

The Catholic Church has long responded to women who report priests for abusing their authority by blaming the women for seducing the churchmen, portraying them as mentally unstable or minimizing the event as a mere "mistake" or "boundary violation" by an otherwise holy priest.

That said, Francis' recent gestures and statements had raised questions about his attitude toward the case and Rupnik's alleged victims.

For starters, Francis met with Rupnik's main supporter, who has lashed out at what she called the "lynching" he received in the press. Then, Francis' own Vicariate of Rome issued a statement seemingly casting doubt on the validity of the excommunication decree.

Those gestures prompted five of Rupnik's alleged victims to break their silence and pen a signed, open letter saying such attitudes from Rupnik's superiors had revictimized them and showed that church pledges of "zero tolerance" for abuse were just a "publicity stunt."

The outcry only grew this week when a diocese in Rupnik's native Slovenia announced it had welcomed him in after the Jesuits threw him out. The diocese of Koper said it had done so because it had received no documentation about any conviction against him, and that he was presumed innocent.