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Stop using art created in abuse: A plea from a survivor

Paolo Ruffini, head of the Vatican Dicastery for Communication, speaks June 21, 2024, during the Catholic Media Conference in Atlanta. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

When I first learned that Father Marko Rupnik had been credibly accused of serial sexual abuse, in particular of religious sisters, it took me several days to process the news. Years before, I had been in formation for religious life myself and had read his book on discernment. It had a significant impact on my own understanding of hearing God’s voice.

The thought that this priest, with his easily recognizable mosaics that cover churches and chapels in the United States, Lourdes, Rome and throughout the world, had been using his position of spiritual power to abuse women was crushing.

The Vatican has been slow to take action in the case of Father Marko Rupnik. Initially, they said that they could not do anything because of the statute of limitations, although Pope Francis eventually removed that obstacle. Then, the Jesuits expelled Rupnik from their order, citing “disobedience,” but he was welcomed with open arms in his home diocese in Slovenia. Despite Rupnik’s victims saying that his art cannot be separated from his abuse and that it needs to be removed, Vatican Media has continued to use the images of his artwork in its publications and feast day posts on its website.

As a female survivor of childhood sexual abuse, every story that breaks about abuse in the church stirs up some of my greatest fears. I have found great comfort and healing in the church, most especially in the sacraments, and I can profess with confidence that this is the church that Christ founded and where he is truly present. But knowing that there are powerful men who use their spiritual authority as a means to perpetrate the same kind of abuse I experienced throughout my life makes me question whether or not I am safe walking into a Catholic church, entering a confessional or participating in spiritual direction.

Sexual abuse changes a person in unimaginable ways, even affecting a person’s very sense of self — many, like myself, develop post-traumatic stress disorder or dissociative disorders. Our brains and bodies are literally changed by what we have experienced, attempting to protect us from being harmed again, even when we are sleeping or scrolling on social media. Others have difficulty forming trusting relationships, or attempt to cope with the sense of being so deeply violated by using drugs or alcohol.

This is one reason why the continued use of the artwork of credibly accused serial abuser Father Marko Rupnik is so damaging to survivors of sexual abuse. Going about our day, we may come across a social media post, or an article about a feast day in the church, and be confronted with the trademark dark eyes of a Rupnik mosaic. Completely beyond our control, the alarm bells start going off: “There is an abuser who has power in this church. For some reason, he is being defended by those in charge. I am not safe here.”

We live in the era of synodality, when the church is attempting to become a listening church, and yet the testimonies and requests of survivors, especially in the case of Rupnik’s art, are falling on deaf ears. Rome says they want to hear from us, but when we take the vulnerable step of pointing out that we are being hurt when the Vatican continues to use these triggering images, the church appears to support the abuser rather than the abused, with officials telling us, quite literally, “You are wrong.”

Some, including Dr. Paolo Ruffini, the head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication, have warned against destroying Rupnik’s mosaics, claiming to do so would be a form of iconoclasm that is simply not a “Christian response.” For Ruffini, even taking down Rupnik’s art from the Vatican website is a step too far, a judgment of Rupnik that is not in line with Pope Francis’ call to mercy.

I refer to myself as a survivor of sexual abuse because, despite the actions of my abusers and sometimes even myself, I have survived. The tragic reality is that not everyone survives sexual abuse because of how difficult it is to establish safety after being harmed so deeply.

The people who have helped me on my journey are those who have listened and affirmed my experience — those who have believed me, and who have asked how they can help me know that I am safe. They acknowledge the depths of my wounds, although no one can ever really understand, and are moved to compassion to take action, to ensure this never happens again. For myself, it is precisely because I love the church so much that my conscience will not let me be silent when I hear of abuse within the body of Christ.

This is the Christian response to the horrible reality of sexual abuse: to listen to the stories and experiences of survivors, to believe them and to be moved with compassion to act. The reaction to dismiss victims’ experiences, to defend the abuser, is not of God. It is a decision to choose art over human beings.

Eventually, someone is going to have to answer for that decision, if not on earth, then before God himself.

Cecilia Cicone is an author and Catholic communicator based in northwest Indiana. You can connect with her on social media @cecsquared or through her website, ceciliacicone.com. The views expressed here are hers alone and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of her employer.

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