Is the Church really listening to women? — By: The Pillar

The general assembly of the synod on synodality made headlines Wednesday when it released the Letter to the People of God, repeatedly mentioning the importance of including and listening to laypeople – both men and women – in a synodal Church.


At a press conference on Wednesday, Ghanaian theologian Nora Kofognotera Nonterah, a member of the first cohort of voting women to be included in the synod, said she found the synod experience encouraging and inspiring.

She said she felt listened to – as a layperson, a woman and an African – in a Church that has not always made an effort to listen to members of those groups.

Nonterah stressed that the Church is enriched when it listens to women and includes them in decision-making processes. 

“A synodal Church must be willing to sit at the foot of women,” she said. 

But for all the talk of listening to women, is the Church actually doing it? Are Catholic women likely to believe in the idea that the Church is listening to them?

Outside the synod hall on Wednesday, a very different story was making headlines: Fr. Marko Rupnik, the former Jesuit and prominent Church artist, has been incardinated in the Diocese of Koper in his native Slovenia. 

Rupnik has been at the center of a scandal in the Catholic world since late 2022, when allegations that he sexually and spiritually abused religious sisters first came to light.

Numerous allegations against the 68-year-old priest and mosaic artist have been made public since then. The allegations include horrific accounts of serial abuse over a span of more than 30 years.

Rupnik’s case has drawn global attention – not only due to the prominence of his art in the Church and the particularly vile acts he is accused of committing, but also because of the response from both the Jesuit order and the Vatican. 

After Rupnik had been accused of serious crimes under canon law – which led him to be briefly excommunicated – he was invited to give a Lenten retreat at the Vatican, designed a logo for the World Meeting of Families, and maintained a role as an advisor for several Vatican dicasteries.

He was commissioned to install new mosaics in the Spanish church connected to the cave where St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote his spiritual exercises, and he later celebrated the dedication of the mosaics, at a time during which – the Jesuits later said – his ministry was supposed to have been restricted due to the allegations against him.

And now, Rupnik is eligible for active ministry, with the affirmation of a diocese, and no intervention from the Apostolic See. 

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The Diocese of Koper says that because he never received a judicial sentence, Rupnik will be permitted to operate in the diocese with no restrictions on his ministry. 

Rupnik never received a judicial sentence because the Vatican did not pursue canonical charges against him, and the Dicastary for the Doctrine of the Faith declined to waive the relevant statute of limitations, which it often does in similar cases.

The priest is free to operate in priestly ministry because, while the Jesuits dismissed Rupnik in June because of “his stubborn refusal to observe the vow of obedience,” and found “the degree of credibility of what was reported or testified [about his decades of abuse] to be very high,” the priest was not laicized.

Survivors of sexual abuse in the Church have told The Pillar that the news of Rupnik’s incardination comes as a heavy blow. 

That is particularly true because the Church has dealt with this before.

When the Spotlight scandals broke in 2002, Church leaders said they were shocked and appalled, offered heartfelt apologies, held meetings, and pledged to make changes, so that abuse would not happen again.

When the McCarrick scandals broke in 2018, Church leaders said they were shocked and appalled, offered heartfelt apologies, held meetings, and pledged to make changes, so that abuse would not happen again.

That a priest in 2023 can return to ministry, free of any restrictions, after his religious superiors acknowledged receiving “numerous complaints of all kinds” against him, and judging the complaints to have a “very high” degree of credibility, seems to victims and their advocates to suggest that the Church’s efforts at reform still leave much to be desired.

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As Church leaders inside the synod consider what it means to really listen to women – in the words of Nonterah, to “sit at the feet of women” – many outside the synodal halls would suggest they start with the women who say Rupnik raped and manipulated them.

These women also say their complaints of his misconduct went unheeded for years. 

And despite more than two decades of Catholic leaders saying they are committed to fighting abuse in the Catholic Church, these women have now found that sharing their stories has had no effect. 

Despite their testimonies, Rupnik is free to continue the exercise of his ministry without any restrictions whatsoever.

The question of sexual abuse was raised at the Vatican’s press conference Wednesday. 

Cardinal Robert Prevost, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops, responded by saying that while the subject came up in the synodal discussions, it “was not meant to be the central topic of the synod. And so I’m not prepared to say that became the focus of the synod because that was not the synod’s purpose.”

But no matter how much Church leaders may wish to focus on other subjects, the question of the Church’s response to cases like Rupnik’s isn’t going away. 

In fact, it could threaten the credibility of the entire synod, now three years in the making. 

With news about Rupnik’s incardination making headlines in every major Catholic publication on the day that the synod released its Letter to the People of God, a failure to address the issue head-on could derail the entire synod – even among people who have been enthusiastically supportive of the process thus far.

For the Church to make credible progress on the “journey of synodality,” it now seems clear that most Catholics expect leaders willing to listen to women who come forward with accounts of abuse – and not only to listen, but to take action. 

If leaders don’t do that, they may find that any celebration of listening to women at the synod is perceived as little more than empty rhetoric, and efforts to focus on synodality are overshadowed by ongoing questions about the Church’s dedication to reform. 

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