Pope cracks down on discredited Legionaries

  • Sat May 1st, 2010 10:49pm
  • News

By Nicole Winfield Associated Press

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI cracked down Saturday on the scandal-plagued Legionaries of Christ, announcing that a papal envoy would take over and reform the conservative order that has been discredited by revelations that its founder sexually abused seminarians and fathered at least one child.

Benedict also ordered a special commission to study the Legionaries constitutions and said a Vatican expert would investigate its lay arm, Regnum Christi.

The decisions were made after five Vatican investigators reported back to Benedict and other Vatican officials about an eight-month global inquiry into the order to determine its future after its founder was so thoroughly discredited by revelations of his double life.

The Vatican excoriated the Rev. Marcial Maciel for creating a “system of power” built on silence, deceit and obedience that enabled him to lead a double life “devoid of any scruples and authentic sense of religion” and allowed him to abuse young boys unchecked.

“By pushing away and casting doubt upon all those who questioned his behavior, and the false belief that he wasn’t doing harm to the good of the Legion, he created around him a defense mechanism that made him unassailable for a long period, making it difficult to know his true life,” the Vatican said.

But rather than closing the order down, which some critics had called for, the Vatican assured the Legion’s current members that it would help them “purify” what good remains in the order and would not be left alone as they undergo the “profound revision” necessary to carry on.

The pope’s response to the Maciel scandal is being closely watched because the Vatican is facing mounting pressure to aggressively confront clerical abuse. The Maciel case has long been seen as emblematic of Vatican inaction on abuse complaints, since Maciel’s victims had tried in the 1990s to bring a canonical trial against him but were shut down by his supporters at the Vatican.

In the end, it was only in 2006 — a year into Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy — that the Vatican ordered Maciel to lead a “reserved life of penance and prayer,” making him a priest in name only. He died in 2008 at age 87.

The Vatican was remarkable in its tough denunciation of Maciel’s crimes and deception, but it placed the blame almost entirely on him. It made no mention of any complicity on the part of Vatican officials who had held up Maciel as a model for the faithful.

The Vatican said the system of power, obedience and silence Maciel created had kept “a large part” of the Legionaries in the dark about his double life. That did raise questions about what would become of the current Legionaries leadership since many have questioned how they couldn’t have known of his misdeeds.

Jason Berry, who co-authored the initial reports in 1997 in Connecticut’s Hartford Courant detailing the allegations of abuse against Maciel, said the statement was strong but left unresolved whether Benedict would eventually confront Vatican complicity in Maciel’s misdeeds.

In addition, he said, “The Legion is riddled with materialism and disinformation. Preserving the organization is clearly a risk,” he said.

The Vatican ordered an investigation into the order in 2009 after the Legionaries acknowledged that Maciel had fathered a daughter who is now in her 20s and lives in Spain. But it was only in March of this year that the Legionaries acknowledged that Maciel had also sexually abused seminarians and that two men are claiming to be his sons.

The late Pope John Paul II had long championed the Legionaries for their orthodoxy and ability to bring in vocations and money. Berry has recently written in the U.S. Catholic publication National Catholic Reporter of how the late pope’s secretary and No. 2 allegedly intervened to protect Maciel and accept donations on his behalf.

The main U.S. clerical abuse victim’s group expressed disappointment that “the Vatican refused to admit its own complicity in concealing Maciel’s crimes, which have been well-documented for more than 12 years.”

“The Vatican’s lengthy cover-up and foot-dragging, and now its disingenuous denunciation of Maciel, is every bit as ‘immoral’ as the horrific child sex crimes by Maciel himself,” said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

The Vatican set out an initial course of action: the pope would name a personal delegate to lead the order and a commission of study to review the order’s founding constitutions. In addition, the Vatican said the pope would name a special investigator to look into the order’s lay arm, Regnum Christi, at the lay members’ request.

It wasn’t clear what powers the delegate would have, however, and what would become of the current leadership.

Maciel founded the Legion in his native Mexico in 1941 and the order’s culture was built around Maciel. His photo adorned every Legion building, his biography and writings were studied, and his birthday was celebrated as a feast day. Until recently, Legion members took a vow not to criticize their superiors, including Maciel.

The order now claims a membership of more than 800 priests and 2,500 seminarians in 22 countries, along with 70,000 members in Regnum Christi. It runs schools, charities, Catholic news outlets, seminaries for young boys, and universities in Mexico, Italy, Spain and elsewhere. Its U.S. headquarters are in Orange, Connecticut.