Fr. Maciel Sex Abuse Victim Explains Silence (Revised 11/23/04)

Children and Cults in Latin America. Why Victims of Cultic Sexual Abuse Keep Silent in Latin Cultures: A Psychological Perspective
By Juan J. Vaca, S.T.L., Ph.L., M.Ed.
Presentation at the American Family Foundation Conference
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, June 11, 2004

It has been objectively illustrated and methodologically established by the previous presenters of this panel that Latin America is historically and socially a favorable field for the flourishing of cultist groups. Not only because of the authoritarian and paternalistic influence imposed by the Spanish dominance for over four centuries on those countries, but also because of the dogmatic authority exercised by the Catholic church in parts of the world where the 92% of the population is considered Catholic (1).

The question of the present study, “Why Victims of Cultic Sexual Abuse Keep Silent in Latin America�, intends to be answered with substantiated facts from a psychological point of view. And, at the same time, within the context of a culture that promotes respect and unquestionable adherence to religious authority, as is the case of Latin American society.

It is important to point out that this presentation is based, first, on recent specialized studies of the subject, and, secondly and most importantly, on verified testimonies of victims who were sexually abused as minors.

On discussing the serious topic of children sexual abuse, we must not ignore the following psychological realities surrounding these specific victims:

(1) To begin with, child-victims of sexual abuse by adults are usually assaulted when in physical and/or emotional isolation (2) from their families (away from their parental and protective supports). This favorable situation for the perpetrator causes traumatic reactions in the victims, such as emotional shock, fear, shame, guilt and confusion.

All these psychological realities trigger in the psyche of the victim a renunciation to denounce the abuser’s assault to any authority. We already possess some recent statistics that substantiate these facts. For instance, in Mexico (3), The Institute for the Protection of Women and Children has concluded, on February 2004, that only 1% of sexual abuses of women is reported to the authorities. In the USA, the authoritative study conducted by The John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in February 2004, in Part Two, 2.3 The Prevalence of Sexual Abuse of Children by Priests,(page 14) states: “Only 5.1% of the incidents were reported to the police; 26% of the incidents were not disclosed to anyone prior to the study�. And this part of the report concludes: “Furthermore, females were more likely than males to disclose such information; however, disclosure rates are quite low regardless of the victim’s gender� (4).

(2) We may fairly induce from the above reality that the reasons for the extremely low percentage of denunciations is due to the presence of various psychological and sociological obstacle-factors that make such a denunciation by the victims very difficult.
We will elaborate on this subject in Part One.

(3) The lapse of time, between the date when the abuse occurred and the denunciation was made, is another variable that must be considered. The statistics of cases at hand suggest that these reports of sexual abuse of minors usually were made after an average of 7-10 years from the date when the abuse was perpetrated (5).

(4) The scope of this study is limited to enunciate the main psychosocial reasons that tend to delay the legal denunciation of sexual abuse committed by religious leaders in Latin America. Part Two will deal with this topic.

Mexico has been selected for this study because –due to its ethnography and religiosity (87.5% are Catholics) (6)- it is a country highly representative of the rest of Latin America. At the same time, we may legitimately consider some observations regarding Latin American culture within the United States, as an extension of the Hispanic world.

(5) “Why until now?� is the big question addressed again and again to the victims of sexual abuse in different contexts:
• In police precincts, this question is immediately posed, for instance, to women victims of rape or sexual assault.
• Journalists and Media reporters ask the same question as soon as they decide to investigate accusations of sexual abuse of minors by priests and the clergy.
• “Why did it take you so long?� Is the same question asked by Defense lawyers, at the cross-examination of these victims in front of the jury in Court.
• Even parents of victims ask the same question, when their children confide to them their silenced tragedy, time after the abuse was perpetrated (“Why didn’t you tell us before?�).

(6) “Why until now� is a question that might reflect an unjustified escepticism, which tends to re-victimize again and again those innocent victims who have the courage to denounce their abusers. Or this question might be a mere indication of total or partial ignorance regarding the psychological dynamics involved in the sexual abuse of minors. Finally, this question might be legitimately asked in order to investigate the causes of sexual aggression against children.


Very often, the first emotional reaction of a minor, after being sexually abused by a figure of authority, is paralyzing shock. “How come that this beloved, admired figure (father, leader, protector) has done such an evil thing to me?� The victim can not find any reasonable explanations to the assault. On the contrary, he/she usually experiences the following:

(1) Threats.
If the victim has the ability to question the perpetrator, this one, either denies he committed such an act (“I don’t know what you are talking about�, or “I was not aware of my actions�). Often, perpetrators threaten (7) the victims with serious consequences (“Don’t tell any body, otherwise something terrible is going to happen to you�. “Nobody is going to believe you�). So, the victim’s psychological reaction is often a decision to remain silent, in this instance, for personal convenience and self-protection (8)

(2) Fear and Confusion.
The victim, at this point, feels a painful fear from thinking that no adult is going to believe (“The abuser belongs to the adult category. No grown-up is going to believe me� –is usually the victim’s conclusion).

This fear, aggravated by an overwhelming confusion, becomes even more intense, when the perpetrator (priest, religious leader, or parental figure) has a close relationship of authority with the abused minor. These psychological dynamics at play are activated in proportion to the gravity of the abuse and the quality of the abuser’s authority. The greater the authority of the perpetrator, the longer silence tends to be the victim’s response (9).

(3) Ignorance
Victims of sexual abuse keep silent, in many cases, because of plain ignorance, which in connection with their state of confusion prevents them from discerning that the abuse has no connection with the involuntary erotic arousal, and which can produce sexual stimulation of erogenous zones. Even if we take into account the fact that not all sexual abuses are violent and, in some instances, such stimulation might trigger pleasurable sexual responses on the victims, we may conclude that these responses are totally involuntary and unwelcome. In other words, the victim keeps silent, because he/she doest not know what an abuse or delinquent act is, and is ignorant of the body functions.

(4) Stockholm syndrome.
At this point, we must remember the Stockholm syndrome (a confusing mix of fear and dependency), as another cause of silence on the part of the victims of sexual abuse (10).

(5) False guilt.
A false sense of guilt is another major reason for minors to keep silent. The profile of the pedophile indicates a highly manipulative personality. Abusers tend to blame the victim for their criminal acts, instilling feelings of guilt. The perpetrators make their victims feel responsible of their abuse, in order to project their own guilt on the victim and, in this way, be able to maintain the dynamics of manipulation and psycho-sexual exploitation.

(6) Shame.
In Western cultures, and predominantly in Latin American countries, a stigma related to males who have been sexually abused is combined with feelings of shame that tend to prevent any denunciation.

(7) Distrust.
A profound sense of distrust, facing the shaky possibility of obtaining some justice, is another cause of silence on the part of victims. These abused minors ask themselves, “Is it worth it to endure all this process of shame, possible stigmatization for life, and the various inferences that might be applied to my sexual identity, when there is no certainty for the acceptance of my credibility and the outcome of justice?�

(8) Cultural taboos.
In the Latino culture, there are deeply engraved taboos that stereotype, for example, sexually abused women as seductresses and sources of temptation. On the other hand, in the case of males, many stigmatizing inferences are made, related to personal sexual preferences in a Macho and patriarchal culture. Hispanic people say, “If he has been sexually molested, he might be gay –“maricón�).

In summary, minor-victims of sexual abuse take many serious risks, without any assurance that denouncing the aggression will be useful for attaining justice and repairing the horrendous harm inflicted on them. This statement is even more valid, if we consider the high index of corruption, widely known, within the judicial systems in Latin American countries (Mexico is a typical example). If we take into account the cultural insensitivity towards the abuse of children in all of its forms, from sexual to physical violence, from neglect to ill treatment of all kinds, the scenario is most eloquent and difficult.

The conclusion is that minor victims of sexual abuse keep silent because they gain almost nothing by their denouncing and, on the contrary, they lose a lot in terms of safety, personal reputation, suffering, security and social repercussions.


When perpetrators of sexual abuse against minors have a religious investiture accepted in their social circle, factors, even more complex, are introduced into this scenario.
These will difficult and delay in a special manner denouncing the crime by minors. I will mention five crucial factors:

(1) Social reverence
In Spanish speaking cultures, very special reverence exists towards religious figures. These leaders assume a shaman symbolism, due to the syncretism involved with religions of pre-Hispanic origin. The religious leader is perceived as a powerful entity in the spiritual world with supernatural powers (for example, the founder of the Legion of Christ sect is believed to read his followers’ minds and consciences, to forecast the future, to have been seen in two continents at the same time – “bilocation,� etc.).

It may be testified that a superstitious reverence refrains both adults and minors from denouncing abuses when they occur. So far, for example, as to believe that you will stop receiving certain spiritual blessings, or your family members are going to be spiritually harmed, or you will go into eternal damnation.

(2) Divine representation
Religious leaders are frequently considered unquestionable God representatives (13). By virtue of this parallelism with God and the superimposition and representation of God, these leaders’ moral actions cannot be evaluated nor criticized as in the case of other adults. The rationalization in the mind of the followers abused by the leader goes like this: “If he lies and commits all these sexual abuses that normally are evil acts for other persons, these acts are okay for my leader because he is God’s representative� (14).

These religious status, as pastors or priests, shamans or prophets, make these leaders avatars, role models, and interpreters of all moral values. Because of all the above reasons, the abuse perpetrated by these leaders provokes a dramatic confusion in the minds of the minor victims. And such confusion leads the victims towards a kind of conscience paralysis that prevents them from questioning, criticizing, and evaluating the leaders’ actions.

(3) Social representative
The leader, by the force of his own condition as God’s representative, becomes the natural and authoritative representative of his institution and community. He is the institution, he is the community, in the same sense as when King Louis XIV of France said, “La France est moi� (“I am France�). One of the peculiar characteristics of the psychological nature of the Latin American people is their sense of community. They tend to identify themselves with their ethnic communities (Tarascans, Mayans, Incas, etc.), religious groups (Catholics, Protestants, etc.), sport clubs (soccer or baseball fans). This strong sense of community offers tremendous challenges when a victim feels the responsibility of denouncing a religious leader.“They (the leaders) are untouchable�. The denunciation becomes almost impossible to be made because, by doing so, it is believed that the reputation of the whole institution might be tarnished, all the believers’ community will be hurt. Such is the case in the Catholic Church with the present crisis provoked by the scandals of sexual abuse of minors by priests.

Religious sociopaths tend to manipulate such arguments, offered by their identification with their communities in order to lock the conscience of the abused minors and prevent them from denouncing them.

(4) Family considerations
It is a fact that faith, religion, and institutional affiliation are very important factors for many Latin American families. In this context, it becomes a tremendous inhibitor for the victim the thought of hurting the faith of the entire family, or the fear of being rejected by the family, if he/she speaks out. It is not infrequent the case of a family that continues being loyal to the institution that represents the abusive leader. This situation is easily explained by the social dynamics influencing the Latin American people, in such a way, that the family identity, and even the national identity, tends to be strongly defined by its religious affiliation.

The alternative for a minor who has been abused, and faces a decision to denounce a religious aggressor, is emotionally stressing and enormously exhausting. The denunciation may imply losing the family or hurting that valuable and intangible symbol called faith.

(5) Damage to personal interests
Please allow me to illustrate this point with the following example: A girl abused in an orphanage run by nuns, might be completely deprived of shelter and education, if she speaks out.

We all know our natural instinct of self-preservation, which is a very pragmatic principle. Depending on the abuse type and frequency, the abused girl of our example may put on a scale the cost-benefits of denouncing or not denouncing. If the option is between dying from cold and hunger on the streets, or enduring some occasional abuses that are not extremely physically violent, this girl might opt to remain silent. The instinct of self-preservation prevails in this and similar situations of abuse. It is as simple as that.

In cases of adults who are evaluating or resolving in retrospective abuses perpetrated on them by religious leaders, within an institutional context, these adults may utilize a similar logic in reference to their professional future. This is true, especially in cases when adults are still connected (by jobs, work, paychecks) with the institution. These adults may lose their work positions and salaries, or see their careers being destroyed, if they present a complaint. Cases after cases testify to this reality, especially if the institution closes ranks around the religious leader who perpetrated the abuses, and decides to initiate a campaign of character assassination against the victim and/or decides to take legal action. This scenario is very common in Latin America.

There is no need for an ethical judgment on these cases in order for us to understand that such a situation constitutes a strong factor, which benefits the culture of silence and prevents any denunciation.

As colophon of Part One and Two, let me propose the following: All factors mentioned above – the general psychological causes, as well as the specific psychosocial ones related to the religious leaders and to the Latin culture in particular – are tightly interrelated, enmeshed, to create a wall of silence and endlessly delaying, in some instances, even to entomb forever most denunciations of sexual abuses perpetrated by religious leaders and suffered by countless numbers of Latin American children.

Analyzed in the proper context, the delay on denouncing abuses has a substantially simple explanation. It is just part of a process with many complex factors that have been mentioned above.

Faced with such a scenario, the question should never be “Why until now?� but, instead, “How many victims have had the courage to speak in the course of their life?� And because of those factors mentioned before, we should ask “How many victims will be silent forever�


Until now, I have been talking as a professor of Psychology and Sociology – a profession that I have been practicing for over fifteen years and a position that I presently hold at the Manhattan Campus of Mercy College since 1999. Nevertheless, my professional commitments and clinical experiences have been confirmed by empirical data that back the findings of the specialized literature dealing with the topic of silence and child sex abuse by religious leaders.

All facts discussed from Psychology and Sociology in this presentation, during the previous 25 minutes, you will see them now present in my own personal life.

I am a former catholic priest. For almost 30 years I belonged to the Catholic order and ultraconservative group, known as the Legion of Christ. Founded in Mexico in 1941 and presently active in more than 20 countries, it has 53,000 active lay members in Regnum Christi and 2,500 priests.

At the age of 10, I was personally recruited by the founder of the Legion, the Reverend Marcial Maciel, and taken two years later to his seminary in the north of Spain for training within the high-demand sect. I was separated from my family contact and home supports, and away from all social relationships for 12 years. Being isolated from all contact with the outside world, with the channels of personal communication controlled and my mail censured, the founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel, perpetrated on me sexual and psychological abuse that I endured for several years.

When he started to abuse me and I immediately confronted him, he excused himself by explaining that he suffered certain alleged excruciating pain in his genitals that only could be alleviated by frequent masturbation. Soon, I started to witness and see that the founder was abusing some other 23 of my child-schoolmates.

This psychosexual relationship of abuse was prolonged for almost ten years with the concomitant traumas that triggered an intense ethical and spiritual confusion, fear, shame and anxiety. I endured countless days of severe stress, and nights of debilitating sleeplessness.

Twelve years passed until I was permitted to see my parents, again in the midst of confusion and feelings of guilt. I stayed in the institution while trying to resolve deep derived internal conflicts. When at the age of 22 I decided to confront again the founder and denounce his abuse, he punished me with six years of painful exile from the company of my companions and schoolmates, at my residence in Rome. I was shamefully ordered to be immediately removed to the north of Spain. Finally, when he mistakenly sensed that I would remain silent for the rest of my life, he convinced me, under pressure, to be ordained into the priesthood.

The first position the founder assigned to me was of vice-rector and spiritual director of the above-mentioned seminary in the north of Spain. In that capacity, four adolescent students came to me denouncing individually that the rector had been sexually abusing them (Years before, I knew that this rector was also one of the founder’s abused victims when we were pre-adolescents as well, like in my own case).

I immediately reported these incidents to Fr. Maciel, who gave me instructions to cover up all the traces of the abuse. The perpetrator was fired on the spot and transferred secretly to a mission territory in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. For my good job at the cover-up of that mess, the founder rewarded me with the appointment of superior and president of the Legion of Christ in the U.S.A., position that I held for five years (1971-1976), until the day when, frustrated and exhausted, I presented my resignation to the founder and left the Legion of Christ without any remorse whatsoever. I then decided to offer my priestly services to the diocese of Long Island, New York. Three months later (October 1976), I formally denounced the sexual abuses of the Legion’s founder to the Vatican, through the proper channels of my current bishop, the Reverend John R. McGann (presently deceased), and the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C. Three years later, I wrote a second denunciation to the Vatican through the same official channels. Again, in 1996, this time eight of us, all professionals and former sex child victims of the Reverend Marcial Maciel, sent an open letter to John Paul II. We never received any response from the Vatican, not even a beaurocratic note of receipt.

After years of personal therapy and liberating process of discernment, I left the active ministry and started to dedicate my time and energies to the field of Psychology and Sociology with the purpose of understanding a reality that this Pope has called “Mysterium iniquitatis� (“the mystery of iniquity�), a reality that mercilessly destroys so many innocent children in our society. In this way I have been trying to determine where sickness ends and evil begins. In a sociopath personality, as is the case of the founder of the Legion of Christ, these two realities – sickness and evil – are extremely difficult to be separated. Malignant Narcissism is pathology, but it does not annul personal responsibility.

In spite of all denunciations and efforts made in the last eight years, the Vatican still supports this founder and ignores all accusations made by the victims against this abuser. The Legion’s founder has built his own mausoleum in Rome and openly talks about the process of his eventual canonization (the Vatican procedures towards sainthood).

Maciel’s defenders argue that all accusations are falsities and calumnies because his “life accomplishments� speak for themselves. Maciel’s disciples and followers even have the audacity and cynicism to quote in their favor Mathew 7, 4:“by their fruits you shall know them� (Math. 7,4). But we know that History is full of figures that have deceived entire nations and committed horrendous crimes and all kind of abuses against humanity, in spite of their accomplishments. Sociopaths like Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein and the like. This defenders’ argument is both scholarly invalid and worthless.

Experiencing a profound peace of mind, product of arduous but liberating convictions, I got happily married in September 1989. My wife and I were especially blessed with a beautiful daughter, now almost 10 years old. My hope is that my personal experience and professional contribution will help to prevent any more innocent children from being abused by sociopaths and predators, such as the founder and current leader of the Legion of Christ.

In closing, please allow me to express my deep appreciation to Dr. Jorge Erdely for organizing this panel on Children and Cults in Latin America. My sincere thanks also to Dr. Michael Longone, the members of the AFF staff and the University of Alberta for putting together a great conference.

I thank all of you for listening to this presentation. Thank you very much.


(1) World Census. United Nations. April 2004.

(2) John Jay College of Criminal Justice. March 2004.

(3) Estadistica Nacional Mexicana. Secretaria de Educacion. 2003.

(4) A Research Study Conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice: The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States. (The Final Report was published by the USCCB in March 2004). [My note: See Afterword of the Report].

(5) John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The U.S.A. Conference of Catholic Bishops. March 2004.

(6) World Census. United Nations. April 2004.

(7) The Sexual Abuse of Children. A CUNY Conference presentation by Juan J. Vaca and a panel of professors, Department of Behavioral Sciences, CUNY (City University of New York). 2003-2004.

(8) A Perspective on Clergy Sexual Abuse, by Dr. Thomas Plante – 2003.

(9) Doctoral Dissertation (unpublished), by Juan J. Vaca. 2000.

(10) Child Sexual Abuse – Psychological Aspects, by Tenna M. Perry. 2004.

(11) “Silence of the Lambs: Why Survivors Keep Quiet,� by Jennifer Merrill. 2003.

(12) “Silence is Complicity, Isn’t It?�. Referred in Subversive Harmony, May 14, 2004.

(13) Marcial Maciel “Mi Vida Es Cristo�. By Jesus Colina. 2003. Page 67.

(14) El Legionario. By Alejandro Espinosa. 2003. Page 127, 207.

(15) Vows of Silence, The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, by Jason Berry and Gerald Renner, Free Press, 2004

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