Columnist Terry Mattingly: Pope praises journalists for silence on some scandals

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The hellish relationship began with a kiss — a strange exchange between a teenager preparing to become a Loyola sister and the Slovenian Jesuit who was already her confessor.

“The first time he kissed me on the mouth, telling me that this was how he kissed the altar where he celebrated the Eucharist, because with me he could experience sex as an expression of God’s love,” said “Anna” in an interview with the Italian news agency Domani.

The young priest was Father Marko Ivan Rupnik, who was already an artist on the rise. His artistic skills brought him to the Vatican in the late 1990s, and his sacred art has been celebrated around the world. However, he has been accused of sexual and spiritual abuse of Slovenian nuns, such as “Anna,” in the 1980s and ‘90s.

It was hard, said “Anna,” to grasp the meaning of lingering hugs after confession, studies of erotic Kama Sutra art or Rupnik’s request that she pose for paintings, including strategic manipulations of her clothing. This was the Jesuit guiding her spiritual life. He demanded absolute obedience, while absolving her sins.

What followed was years of abuse so bizarre that the Catholic news website The Pillar offered this warning above an English translation of the “Anna” transcript: “Graphic and disturbing content. Reader’s discretion advised.”

While the Catholic press has entered this minefield, “coverage of the Rupnik scandal in the mainstream media has been negligent to an astonishing degree,” said Phil Lawler, who has spent more than three decades in diocesan and independent conservative Catholic publications.

“The fact that Rupnik remains a priest in good standing calls out for explanation, for which the mainstream media aren’t asking,” he added, reached by email.

The big question: Is the Rupnik case one of the scandals that “vaticanista” journalists have handled with a “delicacy” that was recently praised by Pope Francis?

In a first-ever group meeting with Vatican-accredited reporters, on Jan. 22 Pope Francis praised them for avoiding “profane and political” molds in their work.

“I would like to add the delicacy that you so often have in speaking of scandals in the Church: there are some and many times I have seen in you a great delicacy, a respect, an almost, I say, ‘abashed’ silence: thank you for this attitude,” said the pope in a Vatican transcript. “Thank you for the effort you make to maintain this vision that is able to look behind appearances, to grasp the substance, that does not bend to the superficiality of stereotypes and preconceived formulas of the information-spectacle. ...”

Among the reactions online, Damian Thompson of The Spectator tweeted: “Incredible! Pope Francis lets the cat out of the bag, thanking Vatican correspondents for their ‘silence’ and therefore helping him conceal the scandals of his pontificate. Take a bow, guys!”

The Rupnik timeline includes many such “delicate” facts, including descriptions of sexual acts that few editors would publish.

Jesuit leaders have acknowledged that Rupnik was disciplined in 2019, after abuse accusations from numerous women. The Vatican excommunicated Rupnik in 2020, but this judgment was quickly lifted. Then, this past October, a Slovenian diocese informed the Associated Press that Rupnik had been accepted there as a priest.

Those who dissect Vatican life add another strategic date to this timeline. In 2020, Pope Francis asked Rupnik to deliver the sermons during the Vatican’s Lenten retreat.

An editorial at the conservative Catholic website “Rorate Caeli” (Drop Down, Ye Heavens) bluntly claimed that “at every step in the process,” Pope Francis, a Jesuit, has sought to “protect” and “rehabilitate” Rupnik. Despite the lurid accusations, Rupnik’s work provided the logo for the 2022 World Meeting of Families, and his art continues to be used to promote the global Synod on Synodality.

Journalists covering decades of clergy sexual abuse cases have learned the importance of “providing concrete, tangible details” that “might help other victims of sexual abuse to think through their own experiences, and to come forward about them,” noted J.D. Flynn at The Pillar. Specific details help Catholic leaders “identify patterns and vulnerabilities,” while also allowing the accused to address specifics “instead of just denying a vague notion of ‘misconduct’ or ‘imprudent behavior.’”

However, Flynn added: “When a pontiff is under fire for failing to establish transparent processes, praising ‘abashed silence’ from reporters is not likely to garner appreciation.”