Lourdes won't remove mosaics by priest accused of abuse, for now

FILE PHOTO: Former religious sisters who say they have endured abuse by world-renowned religious artist Father Marko Rupnik hold a press conference in Rome

By Alvise Armellini

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The sanctuary of Lourdes, one of the world's most popular Catholic pilgrimage sites, will not for the moment remove mosaics made by a prominent Slovenian Jesuit priest accused of sexual abuse, the local bishop said in an interview.

Father Marko Ivan Rupnik, whose mosaics adorn about 200 churches and chapels around world as well as the Vatican, has been accused of sexual and psychological abuse by about 20 people, mostly former nuns.

Rupnik has not commented on the allegations. The Jesuits last year called them "very highly" credible and expelled him. Both the order, to which Pope Francis belongs, and the Vatican have launched internal investigations.

The Rupnik mosaics adorning the facade of Lourdes' Rosary Basilica "will one day need to be removed", Lourdes Bishop Jean-Marc Micas said in an interview with French Catholic newspaper La Croix published on Tuesday.

The mosaics "prevent Lourdes from reaching all the people for whom the sanctuary's message is intended. But I have decided not to remove them immediately, given the passions and violence the subject incites," he said.

Lourdes is in the south of France. Rupnik artworks were added to one of its three basilicas in 2007.

The bishop - who spoke to La Croix after a panel he had set up last year discussed what to do with the mosaics - said that as a first step, they would no longer be illuminated during night-time processions.

"This is a first step, which we welcome, but it is necessary for other steps to follow in a short time," Laura Sgro, a lawyer representing the Jesuit priest's alleged victims, said in a statement on Wednesday.

Last week, the head of the Vatican's commission against child abuse, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, urged Vatican institutions to stop displaying Rupnik's artworks to avoid a suggestion of indifference to the suffering of victims.

The cardinal's appeal came after a senior Vatican communications official, Paolo Ruffini, spoke against the removal of Rupnik's artworks, as well as calls by some of the priest's alleged victims that they be taken down.

(Additional reporting by Giulio Piovaccari, Editing by Bernadette Baum)