“I Am Looking for Boys Like You”
The unspeakable ordeal of Juan Jose Vaca.
From Vows of Silence by Jason Berry and Gerald Renner with minor edits approved by JJV.
Juan Jose Vaca was the oldest of four children, raised in the town of Zitacuaro, in Michoacan, about a hundred miles west of Mexico City. Childhood photographs showed an exceptionally handsome youth with large black eyes and a trusting face, an altar boy and a Boy Scout in the troop organized by his pastor. Juan’s father, an undertaker and carpenter, was allied with the hierarchy in promoting the social teachings of the popes. Michoacan was a strongly Catholic state. When Maciel visited the pastor in 1947, Juan happened to be in the church. The Legion founder asked, “What about this one?” The pastor replied: “I think he would make a good one.”
Vaca recalled Maciel’s first words to him: “I am looking for boys like you.”
They went home to talk to his parents, who were thrilled at the idea of Juan getting a good education in Mexico City and becoming a priest. “I wanted to be a pilot or a bullfighter or a priest,” said Vaca, smiling over his naïveté. His mother packed a bag. Maciel drove Juan and four others new recruits over the bumpy road to the seminary at Tlalpan in Mexico City. The ease with which his parents surrendered him reflected their thrust in the clergy. Sending a son to seminary was a mark of pride. “The first week I was crying, homesick,” Vaca recalled. The priest who directed the school under Maciel telephoned Juan’s father. Together they persuaded him to stay one week and see how he liked it. One week led to another and another.
In 1949, Maciel told Vaca’s parents he had been chosen to study in Spain, a prestigious opportunity that made Juan swell with pride. On October 3, 1949, the boys boarded a bus for the port of Veracruz. From there, as third-class passengers, they made a twenty-six-day crossing on a ship called Magallanes to Bilbao, Spain. They were destined for the Jesuit-run Comillas University in the northern province of Santander.
In Spain, as Vaca recounted, he was twelve years old on the night a Legionary brother roused him just after bedtime. “Nuestro Padre wants to talk to you.” In the bedroom, Maciel spoke of pains in his internal organs. “He said, ‘Rub me, rub me’ and made a circle on his stomach to show me.” said Vaca. “I was trembling, I was frightened, but I began rubbing. He said, ‘Do it lower, lower.’ Maciel got an erection. I didn’t know anything about masturbation. I was on the verge of puberty. He moved my hand to his penis. I was terrified. Finally he was relieved and he faked being asleep.”
“I was in shock,” explained Vaca. “He was a holy man…a very loving man. He was my father. He did it to me at first with the lights out. Later on he did it with the lights on. Sometimes he used me as a girl. He put his penis between my legs. Once he wanted to penetrate me from behind but I did not let him do that. He had me call another one. He abused two of us together.”
Vaca, who depended on Maciel for everything, felt trapped. “I told him I didn’t feel right. I wanted to go to confession. He said, ‘There is nothing wrong. You don’t have to go to confession.’” But Vaca wasn’t reassured. “Maciel said Here, I will give you absolution,’” and made the sign of the cross in blessing. It was the beginning of a psychosexual relationship that Vaca said would last more than a dozen years. No one, except some of his classmates who experienced the same violations, would ever believe him—not in those days. Still, he felt “being pulled like a magnet toward the priesthood,” the dream he could not abandon, the thing his parents wanted for him.
“We were not to speak or write against the Legionaries of Christ and we are not to criticiae our superiors. If someone thinks something is wrong he is not to go outside the Legion but to bring the complaint to the attention of the superiosrs. Never are we to speak to anyone outside the Legion. That’s because the devil wants to destroy the Legionaries of Christ, we were told”
However, Vaca tried to get the attention of the church authorities at the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962. The Mexican bishps were invited to live at the Legionaries’ headquarters. Vaca, then twenty-five, directed the seminarians who waited on the bishops. Wanting to confide in one of the Mexican bishops, he began writing an account of his life in the Legion, including the sexual abuse. He left a dozen pages in his room. “That was a mistake. No one in the Legion could expect privacy.” Vaca suspected Maciel had his room searched. “I was ready to be ordained,” he said. Discovery of the letter quashed that—and abruptly ended his twelve and a half years of on-again, off-again sexual contact with Maciel. “I saw this man looking at me with shark eyes, so hungry and so cold. He said, ‘I don’t think you are ready to be ordained.’”
Maciel sent him to Spain to teach in the minor seminary in Ontaneda, Santander. For the next six years, Vaca was in exile from Rome, first at Ontaneda and then at a new Legion novitiate in Dublin. He moved through his twenties serving as vocational director, teacher, dean of discipline, and dean of studies. The Legionaries were making a big push to recruit Irish boys. “Everything was paid for by the Legionaries,” said Vaca, “My instructions from Maciel were to get ‘the prettiest and smartest kids.’”
Why didn’t he leave? “I didn’t know how.”
In 1969, Maciel summoned him to Rome. With a good overall record, Vaca had redeemed himself. “I guess Father Maciel figured I would keep my mouth shut.” He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest with other Legionaries on November 25, 1969. After twenty-two years away from his family, religious life was the only world he really knew. Leaving it was something he could hardly picture.
He was sent to Ontaneda, this time as vice rector of that minor seminary. There, four boys complained to him that the rector was “touching” them. “I immediately telephoned Maciel in Rome. Maciel ordered the rector ousted on the spot. The father of one of the abused boys was a policeman—[the Legionaries] didn’t want any trouble.” Vaca said that the rector, who had himself been abused by Maciel as a boy, was later transferred to Chetumal on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, known in the Legion as the “gulag” for errant priests.
In 1971, Maciel sent Vaca to Connecticut to serve as president of the Legion of Christ, Inc. in the United States and rector of the seminary in Orange. Vaca considered the promotion a reward for his covering up the abuse by the rector in Ontaneda. But as guilt burrowed inside him, Vaca knew that one of his predecessors in Connecticut, Father Felix Alarcon, had also been molested by Maciel during his seminary years. Alarcon had left the Legion less than a year after his arrival in America in 1965 and was serving as a priest in the diocese of Rockville Centre. In 1976 Vaca decided he was ready to follow Alarcon in that path.
To be continued.
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