Maciel case belies church promises to combat abuse

Issue Date:  November 21, 2003

Maciel case belies church promises to combat abuse

Perhaps in some arcane Vatican understanding of things lies the explanation for how Fr. Marcial Maciel cannot only remain a priest in good standing but be heralded by one of the highest authorities in the church for the “great work that you do.”

Maciel is founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a conservative religious order with U.S. headquarters in Connecticut. He received the praise and several embraces from Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state ( see story), during a ceremony marking the opening of the academic year at Regina Apostolorum, the university operated by the Legionaries in Rome.

Maciel may be a papal favorite — he has traveled with the pope in the past and has shown up more recently at papal events in Rome — but he is also the target of accusations of sexual abuse by nine former members of the Legionaries of Christ.

We have argued on this page against the zero tolerance policy initially adopted by the bishops last year, and we believe that priests deserve due process and the presumption of innocence. At the same time, the law requires that accusations of sexual abuse be turned over to police, and it is certainly wise to remove from ministry priests who have been credibly accused.

In Maciel’s case, the nature of the allegations and the credibility of the alleged victims would make it an easy call almost anywhere except the Vatican. No U.S. priest superior facing detailed and public accusations by nine former members of an order would last 10 minutes in active ministry.

How bizarre, then, that a head of an international order remains in place even though he would immediately be removed from ministry and turned over to legal authorities if he were living under church norms effective in the United States.

The alleged victims, who first went public with their accusations in 1997, included a retired priest in good standing in Madrid; a psychology professor in New York; a professor at the U.S. Defense Languages School in Monterey, Calif.; and in Mexico, a Harvard-trained scholar of Latin American studies; a lawyer; a rancher; an engineer; a schoolteacher; and another former priest who was a university president and who left a statement of alleged abuse and gave accounts to several witnesses before his death in 1995.

They have repeatedly said they are not seeking money, but justice and the prevention of further abuse.

Their case has been championed by respected theologians and conservative Catholics, who took it to Rome, where it was received by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith but never adjudicated.

In simplest terms, the accusers never got a hearing at the highest levels.

In the Maciel case, the church is sending disturbing mixed signals. What are officials saying, first of all, to victims everywhere who are pressing their own cases? What does it say to other priests who have been sidelined or dismissed from active ministry altogether for accusations far less severe than those made against Maciel? (Details of the accusations can be found in previous stories now available in our archives at ‘keyword Maciel’). And what message is it sending the wider culture, which is deeply skeptical of the ability of church leaders, who remain above accountability, to correct their course?

Vatican officials ought to understand, at the very least, that their promises about combating sexual abuse by priests remain empty until Maciel’s accusers receive a thorough and objective hearing.

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