(OSV News) — “Clericalism is a whip, it is a scourge, it is a form of worldliness that defiles and damages the face of the Lord’s bride; it enslaves God’s holy and faithful people,” Pope Francis told some 400 voting members and observers gathered for the Synod on Synodality Oct. 25. “And God’s people, God’s holy faithful people, go forward with patience and humility, enduring the scorn, mistreatment and marginalization of institutionalized clericalism.”
On the day Pope Francis spoke those words in the synod hall, multiple news agencies began reporting on an arrangement whereby Father Marko Rupnik, a celebrated priest and artist, would be permitted to resume full priestly ministry while living in Rome, despite having been expelled from the Society of Jesus after the order’s investigation found accusations of sexual, spiritual and psychological abuse brought by more than 20 women (mostly consecrated religious) and at least one man, to be “very credible.”
According to the arrangement, he is now a priest of the Diocese of Koper in his native Slovenia, with “all the rights and duties of diocesan priests,” but living in Rome. The priest is in the pope’s diocese, but is not technically his responsibility.
The news also coincided with the release of the synod participants’ “Letter to the People of God” which, among other things, underscored the church’s “duty to listen, in a spirit of conversion, to those who have been victims of abuse committed by members of the ecclesial body, and to commit herself concretely and structurally to ensuring that this does not happen again.” The importance of women in the church also was one of the many highlighted concerns of the synod.
Father Rupnik’s final dismissal from the Jesuits came in July, resulting from what the order said was his “stubborn refusal” to abide by restrictions on his priestly ministry, public artistry and public communications — restrictions that were meant to be a sign of his repentance, allowing him to “enter into a path of truth.”
The Rupnik affair poses a real test to not only the synod’s members, but the whole church, which has 11 months before the synod assembly reconvenes, to reflect on the synod’s synthesis report released Oct. 28 and discern what “co-responsible” decision-making should look like for governance of a “missionary synodal church.”
The Vatican and diocesan decisions made around Father Rupnik have offered to the people of God a disappointing view into the often opaque internal workings of the Catholic Church, which currently lacks synodal processes and structures capable of holding its members accountable to each other in a transparent way, as St. Paul said to Ephesians, “out of reverence for Christ.”
Synodality and a sacred trust
The synod’s synthesis report acknowledges the church’s failure on abuse and states that minors and all people vulnerable to abuse need protection. According to the report, “authentic listening” — heeding victims and survivors about “sexual, spiritual, economic, institutional, power and conscience abuse” — is necessary but not sufficient.
Synod participants explained that reconciliation and justice require “addressing the structural conditions that have enabled such abuse and to make concrete gestures of penance.” This, they said, demands “a culture of transparency and compliance” and structures “dedicated to the prevention of abuse.” That may include giving the judicial task to another body so a bishop is not in the “difficulty of reconciling the roles of father and judge.”
In order to address this, the synod’s participants (and the whole people of God) must discern how to put that into practice. As the church prepares for the second and final meeting of the synod assembly in October 2024, it must determine whether this and future synodal processes will be simply advisory, or whether they will be actively deliberative, closer to what Orthodox observers shared about synodal decision-making in their churches, some of which do involve lay and clergy representation.
The details of Father Rupnik’s saga provide a control case for the synod’s discernment. When the general assembly reconvenes next October, can participants propose actionable, serious and effective actions for dealing with clerical sexual abuse that are not in danger of being bypassed at either the diocesan or curial level by well-connected prelates who know which decision-makers’ heads to turn and how to shape their judgment? What synodal processes and structures could help a bishop or pope govern co-responsibly with the clergy and laity, with transparency and accountability?
Without them, each pope or bishop is vulnerable to errors in judgment that can undermine the entire mission they dedicated their lives to. Both Theodore McCarrick and Father Marcial Maciel, who have since been publicly revealed as child abusers, knew how to influence St. John Paul II’s inner circle and shape the pope’s judgment — even over the objections of his closest collaborator, Joseph Ratzinger, the late Benedict XVI.
At present, in the absence of effective synodal structures and processes, a united and sustained public outcry from ordinary Catholics seems to get results. The uproar around Father Rupnik has echoes in the public dismay surrounding Pope Francis accusing Chilean abuse survivors of being liars in January 2018. As a result, the pope backtracked, ordering an investigation (which eventually revealed the enormous scope of the abuse scandal and cover-up), and ultimately restoring the Pontifical Commission on the Protection of Minors he had allowed to lapse in December 2017.
But as Marie Collins, an Irish sex abuse survivor, pointed out on X (formerly Twitter) Oct. 27, she resigned from the pope’s pontifical commission six years ago as she felt its “work was getting nowhere because of clericalism and internal resistance to change within the Vatican.” In light of Father Rupnik’s case, and noting the commission is part of the Vatican curia, she felt it was even “less likely to succeed.”
Outrage in the digital pews
But the furor about Father Rupnik’s restoration that began Oct. 25 was also mixed with bewildered astonishment when Pope Francis’ synodal intervention on clericalism that day focused on young priests visiting tailor shops in Rome and trying on “cassocks and hats or albs and lace-covered robes,” a situation he angrily called “very sad and scandalous.”
Father Thomas Berg — a professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Yonkers, New York, and a former member of the Legion of Christ who saw the catastrophic damage done to the church by top Vatican officials protecting the Legion’s abusive founder — said on X , “your Holiness, clericalism exhibit A is not the shoppers at Gammarelli’s. It’s Marko Rupnik.”
Mike Lewis, editor of Where Peter Is, a platform that has defended the pope from his most strident critics, called the news about Father Rupnik “unbelievable and outrageous” on X. “This isn’t even a ‘cover-up,’ this is the public promotion of a known abuser, to the horror of the people,” he said. Elizabeth Scalia, culture editor for OSV News and a longtime commenter on clerical abuse, called Father Rupnik’s transfer an “epic fail for synodality.”
Other Catholic reactions on X included priests voicing discouragement and also fear that bishops would follow suit when it came to adult sexual abuse — relocating predator priests into different, or distant, dioceses rather than removing them from the priesthood. Lay people voiced how these seeming backroom machinations to protect bad priests fuel their “lack of trust” in both the synod and the institutional church, while others identified a clear message that Catholic women are “acceptable collateral damage” for predatory priests.
Amid this uproar, the Vatican released an Oct. 27 statement that Pope Francis had lifted the statute of limitations in canon law for abuse claims against Father Rupnik and claimed the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors had brought to the pope’s attention in September “that there were serious problems in the handling of the Fr. Marko Rupnik case and lack of outreach to victims.”
Crucially, it did not say when Pope Francis decided to act.
Pope Francis’ crucial leadership
Numerous previously reported news stories detail the efforts made to alert Pope Francis to Father Rupnik’s case, including the plea from victims that he lift the 20-year statute of limitations that prevented Father Rupnik from a church trial, which has almost become routine in such cases.
During an extensive January interview with The Associated Press, Pope Francis admitted he was close to Father Rupnik, denied he interfered in the complaints submitted against the priest, and said he only waived the statute of limitations for minors and “vulnerable adults.”
The underlying message was that Father Rupnik’s accusers — women who had placed themselves into the priest’s spiritual keeping — were not considered “vulnerable adults,” despite the fact that his accusers’ claims fit the definition Pope Francis gave to the AP: “A personality who seduces, who manages your conscience, this creates a relationship of vulnerability, and so you’re imprisoned.”
“When a world-renowned artist and theologian psychologically and sexually abuses religious sisters and novices under his authority, to whom he acts as a spiritual guide, how is this not considered sexual exploitation of ‘vulnerable adults?'” Sarah Pearson, a member of the Ending Clergy Abuse organization, said in an Oct. 26 news release. The organization unveiled a draft developed by canonists for a “zero tolerance” abuse policy in the Catholic Church. It’s a course of action the synod could propose but that would be ultimately subject to approval by the pope.
But as La Croix International Editor Robert Mickens pointed out on X, the pope’s sudden about-face was more likely “due to intense media pressure and the growing disaffection that Catholics are expressing towards Pope Francis on this matter.”
Mickens had previously raised concerns in a September column that Pope Francis’ “legacy could be in jeopardy” over his involvement in Father Rupnik’s case. He noted that Father Rupnik’s alleged victims wrote an open letter to Pope Francis Sept. 19 saying he had not responded to their four letters or their request for a personal meeting.
Those voices expressed “bewilderment” that the Diocese of Rome — led by Cardinal Angelo De Donatis in the pope’s name — announced Sept. 18 it had investigated Father Rupnik and the Centro Aletti art community in Rome and given them a clean bill of health, casting doubt on the Jesuits’ investigation and the Congregation (now Dicastery) for the Doctrine of the Faith’s January 2020 finding that Father Rupnik was guilty of excommunicating himself several years ago, when he absolved a woman for the sexual act he perpetrated on her. (The penalty was both made public and lifted the same month: May 2020.)
Three days earlier, in a silent but meaningfully perceived rebuke, Vatican media published photos of the pope’s private meeting with the Centro Aletti’s director, who was publicly leading efforts to discredit Father Rupnik’s alleged victims.
Father Rupnik’s alleged victims told the pope they “are left with the voiceless cry of new abuse.” Mickens wrote that if the pope heard them, “one can only conclude that he must not believe them.”
The Koper diocese’s Oct. 25 statement also revealed missing context for these developments: Father Rupnik was already fully returned to ministry. He had been an official diocesan priest since late August.
Synodality must address how decisions are made
The synod’s participants must also reckon with the fact that the Rupnik affair has called into question at the highest level the effectiveness of Pope Francis’ signature 2019 legislation on abuse, “Vos Estis Lux Mundi,” in the absence of synodal processes and structures.
The legislation was supposed to establish protections for minors and vulnerable adults — such as the women religious and others who allege they suffered sexual abuse and other violations at the hands of Father Rupnik and his abuse of power. The failures now implicate the pope’s own diocese in a highly visible way.
On X, Marie Collins wrote Oct. 30, “Until zero tolerance safeguarding and real accountability laws are enshrined in Canon law bishops like #rupnik bishop will carry on as they please.”
While sexual abuse was not “the central topic” of the synod — as Cardinal Robert F. Prevost, head of the Dicastery for Bishops, stated — many of its participants shared at Vatican briefings their concerns about the effect of abuse on the church’s mission and the decision-making involved in how the church responds to it.
Bishop Jean-Marc Eychenne of Grenoble-Vienne, France, whose diocese was hard hit by abuse, told reporters Oct. 21 he saw synodality as “what concerns all must be decided by all,” and that decisions should not be left to “a small elite.” Referring to the theology of Pope Benedict XVI, he underscored that all the church’s members are co-responsible for the proclamation of the Gospel.
Bishop Eychenne expressed the view that if the church had “men and women, fathers and mothers,” involved in decisions, people not primarily concerned about protecting the church, “then less abuses perhaps would have been committed.”
The synod’s synthesis text from the monthlong gathering is the baseline toward co-responsible forms of governance for a synodal church. But “ensuring that this (abuse) does not happen again,” as the synod’s “Letter to People of God” stated, is going to be the standard at which synodality’s effectiveness is measured.
Sara Larson, executive director of the survivor-support ministry AWAKE Milwaukee, who participated in the synod’s preparatory phases, told OSV News the synod’s “important words” will ring hollow unless they are “lived out in concrete action.”
“Our systems for responding to abuse are deeply flawed, and people all around the world continue to be wounded by these broken systems,” she said. “We have to do better.”
Doing better may depend on the next 11 months, where Catholics in parishes have an opportunity to speak their minds on the synthesis of the synod’s work until it reconvenes next October. That will require bishops and pastors to be proactive in setting up feedback sessions — or, given the recent events of the synod, for lay people to raise their voices loudly if they don’t.
Peter Jesserer Smith is national news and features editor for OSV News. Gina Christian, national reporter for OSV News, contributed to this report.