The statement is expected to be issued Friday, Vatican officials said. The National Catholic Reporter said on its Web site Thursday that the Vatican had asked the Rev. Marcial Maciel to limit his public activity by not celebrating public Masses or giving lectures or interviews.
The reported action was taken after the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith concluded its long-running investigation into allegations by former seminarians that the 86-year-old Maciel sexually abused them. Nine former seminarians accused Maciel in the 1990s of having abused them when they were boys or teenagers from the 1940s to 1960s.
The Vatican officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the statement had not been issued, declined to say what the Vatican’s findings were or what action, if any, was taken against Maciel.
Maciel and the Legionaries have strongly denied the allegations.
“Before God and with total clarity of conscience I can categorically state that the accusations brought against me are false,” Maciel said in a 2002 statement. “I never engaged in the sort of repulsive behavior these men accuse me of.”
Asked Thursday to comment on the reports of the Vatican action against Maciel, Jay Dunlap, spokesman for the Legionaries in the United States, said in an e-mail: “We have nothing to say. We don’t know anything about this.”
The order is based in Orange, Conn.
The case against Maciel has been followed closely by victims of the clerical sex abuse scandal because Maciel in particular, and the Legionaries in general, curried such favor in the Vatican under Pope John Paul II.
In January 2005, John Paul hailed Maciel for his “paternal affection and his experience.” A few months earlier, the late pope praised Maciel on the 60th anniversary of his ordination, citing his “intense, generous and fruitful” priestly ministry.
Maciel declined last year to be re-elected head of the order, citing his age.
Any Vatican sanctions against Maciel, who founded the Legionaries in 1941 in Mexico City, also would be significant since this represents the first major sex abuse discipline case decided by the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI. The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith until his election as pope last year.
The Rev. James Martin, associate editor of the Jesuit magazine America, said the Legionaries had enormous support in the Vatican because of their loyalty to the church, their conservative views and their success in recruiting candidates for the priesthood.
“So to take action against their founder is absolutely stunning,” Martin said. “Benedict shows his independence by taking on a darling movement of the conservative right.”
Victims groups hailed the reported sanctions.
“It would have been easy to let this case quietly go unresolved, as so many similar cases have,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Accused by Priests. “We deeply appreciate that, at the highest levels of the church, action has been taken against such an extraordinarily high-ranking Catholic leader.”
Jason Berry, who along with Gerald Renner wrote “Vows of Silence” about the abuse claims against Maciel, said church officials must have felt compelled to take action when the allegations against Maciel spread and prompted additional accusers to come forward after the original nine seminarians unsuccessfully lobbied the Vatican to take action.
Berry said any punishment of Maciel would be “a stain on John Paul’s legacy” because the late pope had praised him so “extravagantly.”
The Vatican investigated Maciel in the 1950s for alleged drug use, trafficking and misuse of funds but not for sexual misconduct. He was suspended from his duties as head of the order then reinstated after being cleared of all allegations.
The status of the sex abuse investigation into Maciel has been particularly confusing. In May 2005, the Vatican’s Secretariat of State informed the Legionaries there was no canonical process underway against Maciel, implying the investigation had been closed.
However, it was the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that was actually responsible for the case and was continuing its investigation at that time, the Vatican officials said Thursday in explaining the discrepancy.