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

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