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

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 Father 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 Father 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 Father 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 Father 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 had never been made public before. The Jesuits announced additional restrictions after December 2022 sexual abuse claims.

In 2023, the Jesuits banned Slovenian-born Father 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 Father 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 Father 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 Father 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 Father Rupnik, published by Italian newspaper Domani Dec. 18, 2022, spoke about a "descent into hell" she experienced for nine years. She recalled how "Father 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 Father 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, when 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 Father Rupnik's model when she was still a medical student and a frequent guest in his atelier at the 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, Sister Samuelle, told OSV News.

Sister Samuelle is a diocesan hermit in a French diocese. From 2008 to 2014, Sister Samuelle worked at Centro Aletti, a place dedicated to religious life and artistic creativity, which was established by Father Rupnik when he moved from Slovenia to Rome.

It is in Centro Aletti where Sister 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.

Sister Samuelle explained that Father 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," Sister Samuelle told OSV News.

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

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

Sister Samuelle also pointed out that Father 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 said.

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 Sister Samuelle, regarding entry of judgment and compensatory claims.

- - - Federica Tourn writes for OSV News from Turin, Italy. She is a journalist investigating clerical sexual abuse for the Domani newspaper.