Lawyer says Vatican may review complaints against Legionaries’ head

MACIEL Jan-7-2005 (1,150 words) With photo posted Nov. 30, 2004. xxxn

Lawyer says Vatican may review complaints against Legionaries’ head

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — A previously dormant case against Legionaries of Christ founder Father Marcial Maciel Degollado could be reopened at the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican lawyer said in a letter to three former Legionaries who accuse the priest of molesting them when they were minors.

“It seems to me that now the case is being taken seriously,” Martha Wegan said in a letter to the men who made the accusations. Wegan is a staff attorney for the Holy See who specializes in cases involving church law.

Catholic News Service obtained a copy of her letter after Gerald Renner, who broke the original story of the accusations in the United States in 1997, reported on the possible reopening of the case Jan. 3 in The Hartford (Conn.) Courant.

In a statement in response to a CNS inquiry, the Legionaries’ U.S. spokesman, Jay Dunlap, said, “The Legion of Christ is not aware that the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has taken in the past or is now taking any action regarding accusations against its founder.”

In her Italian-language letter, dated Dec. 2, Wegan wrote that for the first time the doctrinal congregation now has a permanent promoter of justice — roughly the equivalent of a prosecutor in the church court system — instead of temporary appointees named for individual cases. Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, a priest from Malta, was appointed to that post in October 2002.

Msgr. Scicluna “telephoned me asking if you … want to pursue the suit or not,” Wegan wrote. “I said that I don’t have much contact with you, but I can ask, though I am convinced that you want to go ahead.”

Juan J. Vaca, a psychology professor at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., and one of the three men to whom the letter was addressed, told CNS Jan. 6 that the men told her they do want to pursue it although “my personal feeling at this point is that I’ve lost all trust in Vatican officials.”

“Of course we will pursue it, but I don’t expect anything to be done,” he said in a phone interview. Vaca was once a Legionary priest and head of its North American territory.

Father Maciel, who is now 84, founded the Legion of Christ, also called the Legionaries of Christ, in 1941, when he was still a seminarian. The order now has about 600 priests and 2,500 seminarians worldwide, including more than 75 priests in the United States and a seminary and novitiate in Connecticut.

The Legion’s North American territory was recently divided into two. Atlanta is headquarters for a new territory covering central and western Canada, U.S. regions outside the Northeast and Middle Atlantic, and Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines.

Father Maciel received public congratulations from Pope John Paul II Nov. 30 at the end of a week of Legion celebrations in Rome marking the 60th anniversary of the Mexican-born priest’s ordination.

The pope praised Father Maciel’s “intense, generous and fruitful priestly ministry” and said that ministry has been “full of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.”

During the celebrations the pope also entrusted the Legionaries with administration of the Notre Dame Center, a complex with a conference center, 150 guest rooms and other facilities that serves as the Vatican’s main pilgrimage and cultural institution in Jerusalem. The pope also formally approved the statutes of Regnum Christi, a lay movement affiliated with the Legionaries.

Nine former Legionaries, one of whom is now dead, have publicly accused Father Maciel of sexually abusing them when they were teenage seminarians in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Father Maciel has consistently denied ever engaging in any such activity.

After earlier complaints brought no response from the Vatican, in 1998 the eight accusers who were still alive drew up a formal complaint seeking a canonical case against Father Maciel.

The time limit for bringing charges of sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric had run out under the church’s statute of limitations, so his accusers sought to have him tried for giving absolution to an accomplice in a sexual sin.

Vaca says that when he was being abused in his seminary days he once told Father Maciel that he needed to go to confession about those incidents. Vaca says Father Maciel tried to dissuade him, but when he was insistent the priest said, “Here, I will give you absolution,” and made a sign of the cross over him.

Jose de Jesus Barba Martin, a professor of Latin American studies at Instituto Tecnological Autonomio de Mexico in Mexico City, and Arturo Jurado, a professor at the U.S. Defense Languages School in Monterrey, Calif., were the other two recipients of Wegan’s letter. Vaca told CNS that both of them also say Father Maciel gave them absolution when they expressed moral qualms about their role in sexual acts with the priest.

Church law — both in the 1917 Code of Canon Law in effect at the time of the alleged incidents and in the new code enacted in 1983 — says that such an absolution is invalid unless the penitent is in danger of death. In both codes the law says that any priest who attempts to absolve an accomplice in sexual sin incurs an automatic excommunication that only the Holy See can lift.

According to the men who filed the canonical complaint in 1998, the case had lain dormant from late1999 until Msgr. Scicluna’s recent phone call to Wegan.

Since 1999, however, the sexual abuse crisis in the United States has sparked significant changes in the Vatican’s approach to cases of priests accused of sexually abusing minors. In November 2002 Pope John Paul gave the doctrinal congregation — which has exclusive jurisdiction over all such cases worldwide — the ability to waive the statute of limitations for that crime on a case-by-case basis.

When contacted by the CNS Rome Bureau, Msgr. Scicluna declined to say whether the statute of limitations might be waived, allowing the complaint against Father Maciel to be amended to include the allegations of sexual abuse as well. “We do not offer comments on any individual cases,” he said.

Wegan also declined to comment. “I cannot talk about this. I cannot talk to a journalist,” she said.

Dunlap said that when Father Maciel was accused of improprieties in the mid-1950s, the Vatican cleared him of all accusations. “Father Maciel and the Legionaries were thoroughly investigated by the Holy See from 1956 to 1959 regarding many accusations and nothing wrong was ever found,” he said. “The Holy See can always review the records on file, the accusations and proofs of innocence.”

The issues the Vatican investigated in the 1950s did not include allegations of sexual abuse of seminarians.

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Contributing to this story was Cindy Wooden in Rome.

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