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Pope Francis speaks during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at The Vatican, on Oct. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, File)

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis has ordered the Vatican to reopen the case of a well-known priest-artist accused of sexually, psychologically and spiritually abusing adult women, and removed the statute of limitations on their claims, the Vatican said Friday.

The announcement marked a major turnaround for the Holy See and followed an outcry among victims and their advocates over the handling of the case of the Rev. Marko Ivan Rupnik, a former Jesuit whose mosaics grace churches and basilicas around the world.

A Vatican statement said Francis’ abuse prevention commission had flagged “serious problems” in the way his case was handled initially, particularly in the “lack of outreach to victims.” That terminology in itself was significant because church authorities had previously refused to even consider women with claims against Rupnik as “victims.”

Francis asked the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles abuse-related crimes according to church law, “to review the case and decided to lift the statute of limitations to allow a process to take place,” the statement said.

Rupnik, a Slovene priest, was declared excommunicated by the Vatican in May 2020 for one of the most serious crimes in the Catholic Church’s legal code: using the confessional to absolve a woman with whom he had engaged in sexual activity.

The Jesuit order kicked him out this summer after several adult women accused him of sexual, psychological and spiritual abuses dating back 30 years. After conducting their own investigation, the Jesuits said they found the women’s claims to be “very highly credible.” But they said the Vatican’s canonical norms in force at the time of the alleged abuse precluded harsher punishment for old cases involving the abuse of adults.

The scandal has been a headache for the Vatican and Francis himself due to suspicions that Rupnik received favorable treatment from the Holy See since Francis is a Jesuit and other Jesuits head the sex crimes office that investigated the priest and declined to prosecute him for the abuse claims.

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