The Legionaries of Christ: Fr. Maciel’s Trial Draws Nearer

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has begun a preliminary investigation and has interviewed dozens of new witnesses – who have filled pages with new accusations

by Sandro Magister
ROMA, May 20, 2005 – Last April 2, just as John Paul II was dying in Rome, in New York the promoter of justice for the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Charles J. Scicluna, from Malta, was interviewing Paul Lennon, the former headmaster of a “School of Faith” run by the Legionaries of Christ. Mr. Lennon, who is Irish, is now a psychotherapist in Alexandria, Virginia, and a witness against one of the most revered and powerful men of the Catholic Church worldwide: Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, 85, from Mexico, the founder of the Legionaries and the apple of pope Karol Wojtyla’s eye.

With 650 priests, 2,500 students of theology, 1,000 consecrated laypeople, 30,000 active members in twenty nations, and dozens of high-level schools and universities – two of which are in Rome; one of pontifical right, inaugurated in 2002, the Regina Apostolorum; and another which has just been recognized by the Italian government, the European University of Rome – the Legionaries of Christ are a staggering success story.

Last November 30 (see photo), John Paul II publicly embraced their founder, Maciel, and congratulated him on his 60th anniversary of priestly ordination, in the jubilant atmosphere of a Vatican audience hall filled to bursting with thousands of Legionaries and militants of Regnum Christi, the order’s parallel lay association.

Four days earlier, on the 26th, pope Wojtyla had given over to the “care and management” of the Legionaries nothing less than the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem, a substantial meeting place and center of hospitality owned by the Holy See and located just a few steps away from the Holy Sepulchre.

But meanwhile, in another Vatican building, that of the former Holy Office, the then cardinal prefect Joseph Ratzinger had just told Scicluna, his promoter of justice, to pull from the congregation’s shelves all of the trials still on the waiting list and in danger of never being processed. The order was: “Every case must take its proper course.”

Among the folders was one six years old and marked, in Latin: “Absolutionis complicis. Arturo Jurado et alii – Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado.” The first phrase describes the charge, the second gives the name of the first of the accusers, and the third is the name of the accused. The alleged crime, the absolution of an accomplice in confession, is one of the most terrible for the Church, so much so that it has no statute of limitations.

A few days later, on December 2, Martha Wegan, an Austrian living in Rome and working as a lawyer for the Holy See in the canonical forum, sent a letter asking Arturo Jurado, José Barba Martin, and Juan Vaca, three of Fr. Maciel’s eight accusers, if they intended to confirm their request for a canonical investigation. They had submitted the request to the Vatican on October 17, 1998, delivering it by hand to the undersecretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the time, Gianfranco Girotti.

The three responded in the affirmative. Wegan communicated their reply to the promoter of justice, Scicluna. He opened the preliminary investigation on the denunciations in his possession: years and years of sexual abuse committed by Fr. Maciel against his accusers, all of them former Legionaries, when they were young and under his guidance at the seminary in Rome. The charge was made heavier by the accusation that he had then absolved them in confession.

* * *

The denunciations of the eight men appeared for the first time on February 23, 1997, in the Connecticut newspaper “The Hartford Courant,” in an article by Jason Berry and Gerald Renner. At the time, the firestorm of reports in the United States of sexual abuse committed by priests on children and young people had still not broken out. But this was the forewarning.

What was striking, apart from the gravity of the accusations, was the personalities of the accusers: professionals, lawyers, accomplished university professors. Some of them had held high offices in Fr. Maciel’s organization. One of them, Félix Alarcón, had opened the Legionaries’ first outpost in the United States. Another, Vaca, had been president of the Legionaries in the U.S. from 1971 to 1976. In 1978 and again in 1989, he had sent two private declarations to John Paul II, accusing Maciel of having abused him when he was a teenager. In both cases, he received no reply. Partly for this reason, he and the other seven finally decided to make all of it public, and to submit their denunciation to the Vatican in 1998.

As a target of these defaming accusations, Fr. Maciel has always defended himself by denying them outright. But he has also counterattacked.

Against his accusers, he brings up the fact that at the beginning there was a ninth accuser together with the other eight, Miguel Diaz Rivera, a former Legionary who is now a professor in Oaxaca. He later retracted his accusation and stated that the others had induced him to make false charges.

Three other former Legionaries – Armando Arias Sanchez, Valente Velázquez, and Jorge Luis González Limón – are said to be ready to testify that they underwent pressure to maintain untrue accusations.

But the main argument that Fr. Maciel enlists is the result of a previous Vatican investigation against him, from which he emerged unscathed.

It was 1956, and eighteen accusations had been lodged against Maciel, including that of drug addiction. The Holy Office dismissed him from all of his duties, sent him away from Rome, and interviewed his followers one by one.

Among these were also the men who 42 years later would accuse Maciel of sexual abuse committed against them during that same period of the 1950’s. But they said nothing of it then.

The investigation lasted until February of 1959, and ended with the absolution of the accused and his restoration to his duties. The Legionaries of Christ now exhibit two letters of full support for Fr. Maciel written by one of the inspectors at the time, Chilean bishop Cirilo Polidoro van Vlierberghe, now 96 years old.

* * *

In reality, not all the leaders of the Legion have always agreed about how to face the new trial that has been looming over Maciel since 1998. Some of them say that its failure to request the immediate processing of the trial has harmed the Legion rather than helped it. In the face of verbal accusations dealing with events that took place long ago, with no objective confirmation, and issued by a group of former members who are in their turn accused of “attacking Fr. Maciel in order to attack the Church and the pope,” a verdict of absolution would have been certain.

But today this certainty is not as solid as it once was. Last January 23, at the chapter that meets every twelve years to nominate the director general of the Legionaries of Christ, the election did not go to Fr. Maciel, as it always had before, but to a much younger man, Álvaro Corcuera Martínez del Rio, 47, from Mexico. The general staff of the Legionaries denies that this event was connected with the trial. But the fact remains that since the trial was put into motion through Ratzinger’s initiative, Maciel has no longer held any official post in the Legion he founded.

And the sequence of recent events seems to have turned against him. On March 25, Good Friday, in the meditations for the Stations of the Cross at the Coliseum, Ratzinger lamented “how much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to [Christ]” and offered a glimpse of an energetic re-purification. During those same days, his promoter of justice, Scicluna, was leaving for America to investigate the accusations against Maciel. He arrived in New York on April 2, and interviewed not only Vaca, one of the eight who issued the canonical denunciation, but also another important former Legionary, Lennon, who confirmed the accusations of the former with his own testimony relating to more recent years. On the 4th Scicluna arrived in Mexico City, where he continued his interviews until April 10. He spent a total of twelve hours listening to the two formal issuers of the canonical denunciation, Jurado and Barba Martin. He also interviewed the rest of the eight, except for Fernando Pérez Olvera, who sent him a written account. But above all, he interviewed many new witnesses from Mexico, the United States, Ireland, and Spain, some of whom had been Legionaries until just a few years ago. They all added new accusations to the investigation, not only against Maciel, but also against younger leaders in the Legion, always for the same “filth.”

With Scicluna was a priest taking dictation. He kept a written transcript of each testimony, and at the end had this checked and approved by the witness. When the two returned to the Vatican in mid-April, they had on their agenda the names of twenty former Legionaries in Spain and Ireland who had asked to be interviewed. Scicluna might soon visit these two countries. In any case, he will as promoter of justice prepare a report with his concluding proposals at the end of his preliminary investigation. The Vatican authorities will decide on the basis of this whether or not to begin a real and proper canonical trial.

If it were up to cardinal secretary of state Angelo Sodano, a great protector of Maciel and the Legionaries of Christ, this trial would never take place. But Ratzinger has been elected pope, and he will have the last word.

Benedict XVI has elected as the new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith the archbishop of San Francisco, William J. Levada, one of the four bishops in the United States responsible for the effort against sexual abuse committed by priests.

Two days before the conclave, on April 16, Ratzinger met Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, a great proponent of his election and an even more decisive supporter of a rigorous approach to purifying the Church of this scourge. Ratzinger assured him of his support.

As George was kissing the newly elected pope’s ring, Benedict XVI told him he would keep that promise.

POSTSCRIPT, May 25, 2005
A few hours after the publication of this article on http://www.chiesa, on Friday, May 20, the Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ released a statement that begins as follows:

“The Holy See has recently informed the Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ that at this time there is no canonical process underway regarding our Founder, Fr Marcial Maciel, LC, nor will one be initiated.”

That same day Catholic News Service, the agency of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference, published a dispatch that starts out by saying:

“The Vatican has confirmed that it plans no canonical process against the founder of the Legionaries of Christ.”

It went on to say that “the confirmation was issued by Passionist Father Ciro Benedettini, a Vatican spokesman, after Catholic News Service asked him about the Legionaries’ statement.”

On Sunday, May 22, in an article in “The New York Times,” Ian Fisher wrote that he had also spoken with Benedettini by telephone on the previous day, and that he had been assured that “there is no investigation now, and it is not foreseeable in the future.”

On Monday, May 23, the website of ReGAIN, a support group for former Legionaries, released a statement containing new declarations on the part of Benedettini, with whom staff members of ReGAIN spoke by telephone the morning of that same day.

This is Benedettini’s comment in regard to the May 20 statement from the Legionaries of Christ, as reported by ReGAIN:

“That communiqué does not belong to the Holy See; it is a communiqué from the Legionaries of Christ. They called me, the same as you are calling me, and they asked me if there is any communiqué about the investigation, or about a possible investigation, into Fr. Maciel. I told them that the Press Office [of the Holy See] had not received any communiqué about whether there is, was or will be any such investigation; that this issue does not concern the Press Office but directly concerns Monsignor Scicluna [the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith’s Promoter of Justice].”

Finally, on May 25, the Rome correspondent for the “National Catholic Reporter,” John L. Allen, verified that the origin of the preceding declarations of Benedettini and the Legionaries was a fax sent on May 20, unsigned but bearing the stamp of the secretariat of state, which read in Italian:

“Non vi è nessun procedimento canonico in corso né è previsto per il futuro nei confronti di p. Maciel”.

Literally, in English:

“There is no canonical procedure in course nor is one foreseen for the future with regard to Fr. Maciel”.

The formula “is not foreseen” is commonly used at the Vatican to indicate actions that are in the realm of possibility, but on which no decision has been made.

No statement has been issued during this period from the Vatican office responsible for deciding in the Maciel case: the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

So essentially, this flurry of statements and silences reveals that matters stand as reported in the article on http://www.chiesa. There is a preliminary investigation underway. And it is on the basis of this investigation that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will decide whether or not to open a canonical process against Fr. Maciel.

The May 20 statement from the Legionaries in its entirety:

> The Holy See has recently informed…

The dispatch from Catholic News Service:

> Vatican says no Church action planned…

The May 23 statement from ReGAIN:

> This morning, at exactly 9am…

The May 25 article by John L. Allen:

> Statement on Maciel not issued by agency responsible for sex abuse cases

The official website of the Legionaries of Christ, in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French:


The accusations in the Maciel case are most accurately reported in this book published in the United States:

Jason Berry and Gerald Renner, “Vows of Silence. The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II., Free Press, New York, 2004, pp. 356.

A defense can be found on this ad hoc website of the Legionaries of Christ, in English and Spanish:


There is an autobiographical interview of the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, which is also available in Spanish:

Marcial Maciel interviewed by Jesús Colina, “Christ Is My Life”, Sophia Institute Press, 2003, pp.304.

The most detailed book on the history of the Legionaries of Christ written by members of the movement is this one:

Angeles Conde, David J.P. Murray, “The Legion of Christ: a History”, Circle Press, North Haven, CT, 2004.

But the most impartial book written by non-members is the following, published in Spain. Its author is the editor-in-chief of the news agency EFE and president of the Association of Religious Information Journalists:

José Martínez de Velasco, “Los Legionarios de Cristo”, La Esfera, Madrid, 2002, pp. 432.

You can find links to previous articles from http://www.chiesa on Fr. Maciel and the Legionaries of Christ on this page:


English translation by Matthew Sherry: >

Go to the English home page of >, to access the latest articles and links to other resources.

Sandro Magister’s e-mail address is

The New Pope and the Catholic Sex-Abuse Scandal

Written by Gregory Borse
Tuesday, May 10, 2005
Editor’s Note: For an update on this story, go here.
The author wishes it to be known that while he did not have direct contact with the Legion regarding the Maciel case, he was employed in a capacity in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s that brought him in intimate contact with members of the Legion of Christ’s lay movement, Regnum Christi, and has been familiar with the accusations detailed below for some time—both as matters reported in the press, and as matters discussed among members of Regnum Christi and responded to by the Legion itself.

The elevation of Cardinal Ratzinger to the Pontificate of the Roman Catholic Church ended much speculation following Pope John Paul the Great’s death regarding what direction the Church would take in this first part of the 21st century. Many pundits clamored in the media for a Pope more open to the “spirit” of Vatican II on issues such as homosexuality, contraception, abortion, and the role of women in the Church. Conservatives hoped for, and got, a Pope who would continue the conservative line etched out by John Paul II. Liberal Catholics hoped for and were disappointed not to get a Pope who would steer the Church toward recognition of the great secular themes of modernity.

Another group—smaller and more intensely interested for different reasons—spent the short inter-regnum anxious that the Church would not only continue but intensify its investigations of priestly sexual abuse in the U.S. and around the world. This group’s interest in the new Pope centered upon the cover-up of the scandal in the U.S. and elsewhere and the Vatican’s slow response to the burgeoning problem. For as much as many of the victims and their families might have loved the Church and Pope John Paul II, their criticism centered on the fact that the Church was negligent or abusive, if not criminal, in its response and/or lack of response to the reality of abuse that they contend has been ongoing for quite sometime.

Cardinal Ratzinger himself, as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Inquisition), was a key player in the Vatican’s response to the crisis as it emerged in the United States. While the American Bishops, for instance, finally responded under pressure from lay Catholics and the media to address the problem by drafting policies calling for the removal from ministry of any priest even accused of abuse until such a time that the accusations can be proved to be true or false, the Vatican did not adopt similar policies—although it approved the American Bishops’ policy.

Hence, while cases of accusations in the U.S. have for the past several years been handled according to that policy, they have not been similarly handled elsewhere in the Church. Part of the explanation for this might be that civil and criminal laws in other countries are not the same as they are in the U.S. and, while Canon Law is the same everywhere, the cultural response to the abuse crisis made it seem, at first, to be an American problem. It is not.

Interestingly for those Catholics worried that the elevation of a new Pontiff might signal a negative change in the Vatican’s attitude about the sex-abuse scandal, just before the death of the former Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger ordered a re-activation of a case that has languished for a great many years—and one that he reportedly had personally shelved in 1999 (though the case remained open).

The case concerns accusations of sexual abuse brought forward by eight (or twelve, depending upon the source) former members of the priestly congregation known as the Legionaries of Christ. The accusations did not come to light until the 1990’s, but they stretch back to the 1950’s, shortly after the Legionaries were founded in Mexico by Marcial Maciel. The accusers hold that the founder of the Legion of Christ sexually abused them when they were seminarians.

The stories of the individual accusers are uniformly sad and sordid. For its part, the Legion has responded through its various spokepersons and media outlets (The National Catholic Register, for instance, is owned and operated by the Legionaries of Christ) with categorical denials on behalf of Maciel—who, himself, has publicly denied the accusations in no uncertain terms.

As has now been reported in the New York Times and the Boston Globe, as well as the conservative Catholic monthly New Oxford Review, Ratzinger’s re-activation has resulted in a visit by the Prosecutor for the CDF, a Father Scicluna, dispatched by Ratzinger himself to Mexico, the U.S. and now Spain, to interview the original victims and gather what is now being described by some as new evidence from others who have heretofore not spoken to the Vatican about the case.

Victims of sexual abuse by priests in the U.S. should be heartened by the acceleration of activity in the wake of John Paul II’s death and the elevation of Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. It means that the Vatican not only takes the charges seriously, but that it recognizes that the abuse problem is not exclusive to the United States. It also signals Pope Benedict XVI’s dedication to reforming the Church from within—in a place most ticklishly close to the heart of its mystique—the clergy.

Whatever the investigation ultimately reveals, the results will be inevitably distressing for Catholics on all sides. Either the founder of an order will be found guilty—calling into question the very legitimacy of his work on behalf of the Church, or his accusers will be found to be frauds. Either result for Catholics is a painful one.

But, Catholics should take heart that the investigation itself is finally proceeding. It means, at the least, that Pope Benedict XVI, like his namesakes—St. Benedict, the patron saint of Europe and the Father of monasticism, and Pope Benedict the XV, who reigned during World War I and whose main goal seems to have been to exert what moral pressure the Church could in a secular world seemingly bent on self destruction—is serious about the real role of the Church in the world for Catholics and non-Catholics alike: as a beacon of truth—even if that means that its light must shine painfully into the heart of the Church herself.

For additional information regarding the charges against the Legion and Maciel, see articles on the Regain Website (go here.); the liberal Catholic National Catholic Reporter’s article about the reopening of the Maciel case (go here.); the recent New York Times article (go here.); the Boston Globe article (go here); or an early rebuttal by the Legion, (go here).
About the Writer: Gregory Borse is the editor of the Writers’ Section of ChronWatch. He holds a Ph.D. from Louisiana State University, and an MA and BA from the University of Dallas. Dr. Borse, a family man with “a beautiful wife and five beautiful children,” enjoys writing, current events, media, politics, and disc golf. Gregory receives e-mail at

News Spreads of Pope Benedict XVI’s determination to Investigate Maciel Case

Vatican orders probe of Mexican order’s founder
8 ex-seminarians say priest abused them decades ago
By Marion Lloyd, Globe Correspondent May 9, 2005
click here for link

Pope Has Gained the Insight to Address Abuse, Aides Say
New York Times, April 23, 2005

click here for link

Chicago Sun-Times
George: Pope focused on scandal

The Independent (UK)
Pope ‘ignored sex abuse claim against John Paul’s friend’

Ezilon Infobase
San Francisco Chronicle
Boston Globe
Kahaleej Times, India
The News Journal, Delaware
International News Tracking Log
Boston Herald, India
Baltimore Sun
SABC News South Africa
Dallas Morning News

Japan Today
SBS, Australia
Trinidad Express
Stockholm City, Sweden
Middletown Press, Connecticut
Orange County Register, California
La Jornada de Oriente, Puebla, Mexico
Terra, Mexico

Vatican orders probe of Mexican order’s founder
8 ex-seminarians say priest abused them decades ago

By Marion Lloyd, Globe Correspondent | May 9, 2005

MEXICO CITY — It took more than 50 years, but eight former seminary students who say they were sexually abused by one of the most powerful men in the Roman Catholic Church are getting a hearing.

In December, the Vatican ordered a full investigation into charges by the former members of the Legion of Christ against the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the order’s 85-year-old Mexican founder. And last month, Monsignor Charles J. Scicluna, the Catholic Church’s promoter of justice of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, traveled to the United States and Mexico to collect testimony about Maciel from dozens of former Legionaries, according to four of the coaccusers.

The case, which dates to the 1940s, was reopened late last year by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who had shelved it five years earlier. Last month, Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, succeeding John Paul II.

”I was very skeptical before,” said Alejandro Espinosa, a 67-year-old rancher and former seminarian who said he was forced to perform sexual acts on Maciel in the 1950s. In 2002, frustrated with the lack of a Vatican investigation into the men’s allegations, Espinosa published ”The Legion,” a book in which he relates the alleged abuse in graphic detail. He said he received death threats after the book came out.

Espinosa said, however, that he has new hope of finding justice in the case after his three-hour interview with Scicluna in early April. ”Now, if I’m not totally convinced, I think there is an 85 percent chance that they will find Maciel guilty,” Espinosa said in a recent telephone interview from his home in northern Tamaulipas State.

Maciel, who stepped down as the Legion’s leader in January, citing his advanced age, has denied the allegations. ”I never engaged in the sort of repulsive behavior these men accuse me of,” he wrote in an open letter posted on the website of the Rome-based Legion in 2002. Since then, all requests for comment have been handled by his spokesman, Jay Dunlap.

”We are confident that any full and fair examination of the facts will fully exonerate Father Maciel,” Dunlap wrote in an e-mailed response to a Globe reporter’s queries.

The alleged offenses occurred too long ago to try Maciel under criminal law, so the alleged victims, mostly Mexicans in their 60s and 70s, decided to pursue the case under the Vatican’s canon law.

The priest faces charges of sexual abuse and of violating the sacrament of confession, an even more serious crime under church law that carries a mandatory sentence of excommunication.

If church prosecutors determine there is strong evidence against Maciel, the case will go before the Vatican’s Apostolic Tribunal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has exclusive jurisdiction to try ”crimes against morality.”
The case, the first to involve the leader of a priestly order, could bring the scandal over pedophilia in the church to an even higher level. The Legion, which was founded in 1941 in Mexico, is one of the fastest growing Roman Catholic orders, with more than 650 priests and 2,500 seminarians in some 20 countries. It also runs dozens of universities and elite secondary schools.

Those achievements won Maciel the support of John Paul, who often cited the Legion’s founder as a model of priestly service. And in late November, the ailing pontiff attended the 60th anniversary celebrations of Maciel’s ordination in Rome.

But several days later, Ratzinger gave the order to reopen the case against Maciel. According to the Rev. Alberto Athie, a Mexican priest who served as an intermediary between the coaccusers and the Vatican, Ratzinger had shelved the case in 1999 on the grounds that the case would upset the pontiff.

Ratzinger’s reasons for ordering the investigation are unclear, since neither he nor other Vatican officials have publicly commented on the case. But the fact that the order came from the man who became pope has given the former Legionaries cause for optimism.

”We can no longer make excuses for the church by saying that the pope didn’t know. The current pope knows well what happened,” said Saul Barales, 73, a retired teacher in Mexico City, who contends that he was subjected to psychological and sexual abuse during his 11 years in the Legion, from 1946 to 1957.

Other alleged victims said they were encouraged by the apparent seriousness with which the Vatican prosecutor was pursuing their case.

”I know that Scicluna returned to Rome very impressed and shocked by the overwhelming evidence that he got from the testimonies,” said Juan Jose Vaca, 67, a former priest and psychology professor at Mercy College in New York, who spent 30 years in the Legion.

”I am sure he was totally convinced that what he heard was the truth.”

It is not the first time the Vatican has investigated Maciel.

Between 1956 and 1959, he was suspended from duties while high-level church officials looked into allegations of drug abuse and other issues. He was later exonerated — a fact used by the Legion to defend his innocence.

”It strikes us as totally incredible that anything like that could have been going on, and nobody bring it forward,” said Dunlap, the Legion spokesman.

Former Legionaries say the vow of obedience they took to the order prevented them from speaking out at the time.

”We were told that the investigators were sent by the devil to destroy the Legion,” said Vaca.

Of the eight coaccusers, he has the longest and most intimate history with the Legion, which he describes as functioning like a cult, demanding supreme obedience and absolute secrecy.

Vaca said that in 1976, when he was the Legion’s top official in North America, he was asked to cover for another priest’s sexual abuse. He said that request prompted him to leave the order and begin writing letters to the Vatican about Maciel, the first one nearly 30 years ago.

”Scicluna told me, ‘We owe you a public retribution, because we failed to protect you,’ ” said Vaca, his voice breaking with emotion, adding, ”I hope he keeps his word.”
© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.

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