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Knights of Columbus order Rupnik icons covered until Vatican investigation ends

A mosaic by Father Marko Rupnik illustrating the Gospel story of Jesus' encounter with the woman caught in adultery is pictured in a file photo at the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington. The Knights of Columbus announced July 11, 2024, it will cover mosaics by ex-Jesuit Father Mark Rupnik at the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington and the Holy Family Chapel at the Knights' headquarters in New Haven, Conn. (OSV News photo/CNS file, Tyler Orsburn)

(OSV News) — The Knights of Columbus has announced the Catholic fraternal organization will cover mosaics by ex-Jesuit Father Marko Rupnik at the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington and the Holy Family Chapel at the Knights’ headquarters in New Haven, Connecticut.

In a July 11 statement, the Knights said the decision came at “the conclusion of a careful and thorough process.”

The mosaics will be obscured by fabric “which will remain in place at least until the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) issues its decision on the pending sexual abuse cases against artist Father Marko Rupnik.”

After that, the Knights said, “a permanent plaster covering may be in order.”

A Catholic fraternal organization founded by Blessed Michael McGivney in 1882, the Knights of Columbus has 2.1 million members in over 16,800 local councils, and its charitable fund has given out $100 million in grants to Catholic and charitable groups since 2019.

In April, the Knights’ 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.

Father Rupnik, whose distinctive mosaics are known for their oversized black, almond-shaped eyes, was expelled from the Society of Jesus in 2023 after refusing to obey the order’s measures imposed in response to credible accusations that he spiritually, psychologically or sexually abused some two dozen women and at least one man. However, he remains a priest living and working in Rome as the director of art and dean of theology at Centro Aletti, the religious art community he founded in 1991.

“Shrines are places of healing, prayer and reconciliation. They should not cause victims further suffering,” Patrick Kelly, the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, said in the July 11 statement.

According to the Knights, Father Rupnik’s mosaics were installed in the St. John Paul II Shrine in 2015 and in their headquarters’ Holy Family Chapel in 2005.

The Knights have also used Father Rupnik’s art for their booklet series on the new evangelization that are in parishes all over the U.S.

The Knights statement explained the order was unaware of the allegations against Father Rupnik ranging from the 1980s to 2015 (including an excommunication for a sexual-based offense that was subsequently lifted) as these allegations came into the public eye in December 2022.

Teresa Pitt Green of Spirit Fire, a Christian restorative justice network that works with the Catholic Church, told OSV News she was “grateful for the Knights’ taking the lead for our whole church to find reason to stop and reflect” on the impact the artwork has on abuse victims.

At the same time, Green said she was “not surprised” by the move.

“The Knights have been in the forefront in safeguarding as well as initiatives to protect minors and vulnerable adults from human traffickers,” she said, adding the Knights “are a moral force to contend with.”

Along with concealing the mosaics, the Knights of Columbus will “immediately implement several pastoral measures to express the Knights’ solidarity with victims of sexual abuse,” according to its statement.

Those measures include having petitions in all shrine Masses for victims of sexual abuse, commemorating feast days of saints — such as St. Josephine Bakhita — with “a special connection to victims of abuse,” and “providing educational materials about the mosaics that will make clear that the continued display of the mosaics at the shrine during the process of consultation was not intended to ignore, deny, or diminish the allegations of abuse,” said the organization.

Kelly noted that the Knights of Columbus chose to cover the mosaics “because our first concern must be for victims of sexual abuse, who have already suffered immensely, and who may be further injured by the ongoing display of the mosaics at the shrine.”

The decision “is rooted in a foundational purpose of the Knights of Columbus, which is to protect families, especially women and children, and those who are vulnerable and voiceless,” said Kelly.

The “extensive process” preceding the decision involved “confidential consultations with individual victims of sexual abuse and those who minister to them, individual pilgrims, moral theologians and art historians, as well as bishops and other clergy,” he said.

Kelly noted that “while opinions varied among those consulted, there was a strong consensus to prioritize the needs of victims, especially because the allegations are current, unresolved and horrific.”

He also pointed to a recent announcement by Bishop Jean-Marc Micas of Tarbes and Lourdes, France, who revealed July 2 that Father Rupnik’s mosaics at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary at the Lourdes shrine will no longer be illuminated, following the reflections of a consultative group the bishop had convened from May to October 2023 regarding the artwork.

Speaking to the French Catholic news outlet La Croix, Bishop Micas said in an interview published July 3 that his “deep, formed, intimate conviction is that (the mosaics) will one day need to be removed,” since “they prevent Lourdes from reaching all the people for whom the sanctuary’s message is intended.”

In the Knights’ statement, Kelly said that “the thoughtful decision of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes … both informed and confirmed us in our own decision-making.”

He emphasized that because the Knights are committed to sharing the Gospel, “the art we sponsor must therefore serve as a stepping stone — not a stumbling block — to faith in Jesus Christ and his Church.”

The moves by the Knights of Columbus and Bishop Micas to conceal the mosaics contrast with recent remarks made by Paolo Ruffini, head of the Vatican’s communications office, who had told journalists June 21 at the Catholic Media Conference in Atlanta that removing Father Rupnik’s artworks from churches and shrines was a “wrong” move.

“I don’t think we have to throw stones thinking that this is the way of healing,” he said.

Regarding the Knights’ decision to cover the mosaics, Kelly said that “context and mission matter.”

“Every situation is different. In the United States, Catholics continue to suffer in a unique way from the revelations of sexual abuse and, at times, from the response of the church,” he said. “It is clear to us that, as patrons of a national shrine, our decision must respect this country’s special need for healing.”

The Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has described its investigation of Father Rupnik as being at “a fairly advanced stage.” Father Rupnik is at present a priest in good standing in the Diocese of Koper, Slovenia. He was incardinated into the Slovenian diocese in August 2023, a move that allowed him to escape any remaining restrictions on his priestly ministry and remain in Rome with his Centro Aletti art institute.

OSV News reached out to both the St. John Paul II National Shrine and Father Rupnik for comment, but did not receive an immediate response.

The close link between Father Rupnik’s artistic work and the abuses he allegedly committed was confirmed to OSV News by Gloria Branciani, a former religious of the Loyola Community in Slovenia who alleged Father Rupnik abused her for nine years when the Jesuit was the spiritual director of the Loyola Community.

“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.”

New mosaics by Father Rupnik’s Centro Aletti are still being installed in various churches in the world, with the latest one unveiled May 26 at a local church in northern Italy depicting the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Centro Aletti lists at least 230 places where the mosaics, characteristic for the black eyes of their biblical and saintly protagonists, are displayed around the globe.

Gina Christian is a multimedia reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) @GinaJesseReina. OSV News staff contributed to this report.

Updated 3:10 p.m. ET July 11, 2024

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