ROME (Reuters) - The Jesuit Roman Catholic religious order said on Tuesday that accusations of sexual, psychological and spiritual abuse against a prominent member were highly credible and that restrictions against him have been tightened.
The order said in a statement on its website it intended to start what it called an "internal procedure" against the priest, Father Marko Ivan Rupnik, a well-known artist of religious themes.
About 25 former nuns and other women have accused Rupnik, 69, of abuse, either when he was a spiritual director of a community of nuns in his native Slovenia about 30 years ago, or after he moved to Rome to pursue his career as an artist.
Father Johan Verschueren, Rupnik's superior in the religious order, posted an update on the case, which has rattled the worldwide religious order and the Vatican since it broke into the open in November.
Verschueren, writing on the Jesuit's website, said that the number of people who had come forward with similar accusations against the priest led to the conclusion that the allegations were "very highly" credible, particularly since some of the accusers did not know each other.
Rupnik has not spoken publicly of the accusations and Verschueren said he has declined to meet Jesuit investigators.
Repeated attempts by Reuters to reach Rupnik through his school for religious art in Rome were not successful and he did not respond to phone messages seeking comment.
Some women have given accounts to the Italian media, saying the charismatic Rupnik used his position as their spiritual director to coerce them to have sex with him.
One ex-nun told how he used what she called psychological control over her to force her into sexual acts, and deployed "cruel psychological, emotional and spiritual aggression" to "destroy" her, particularly after she refused to have three-way sex.
After the allegations against him were first reported, the Jesuit headquarters acknowledged that he had been placed under partial sanctions, including a ban on hearing confessions and leading spiritual retreats, in 2019.
Verschueren said on Tuesday that following the most recent accusations in the past two months, Rupnik has also been banned from carrying out any artistic activity in public.
Rupnik, a mosaics specialist, came to prominence as an artist when the late Pope John Paul II commissioned him to redesign a chapel in the Vatican between 1996-1999. He has since designed chapels around the world.
The new restrictions particularly ban him from having any artistic activities with churches or other religious institutions, Verschueren said.
He said a Jesuit investigation has determined that the alleged abuse took place from the mid-1980s until 2018.
In 2020 Pope Francis, who is also a member of the Jesuit order, called on Rupnik to lead a Lenten spiritual retreat for the pontiff and top Vatican officials.
After the initial media reports last year, the Jesuit order revealed that the Vatican's doctrinal department excommunicated Rupnik in 2020 after finding him guilty of "absolution of an accomplice" in confession, referring to when a priest has sex with someone and then absolves the person of the sin.
The excommunication was lifted several weeks later after Rupnik repented.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Robert Birsel)