The Vatican would not confirm the report but said it would issue a statement about its investigation into the charismatic, 86-year-old priest as early as today.
The restrictions were reported online by the National Catholic Reporter, an independent weekly newspaper, following a week of rumors of some kind of action against Maciel.
John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the newspaper, reported that Vatican sources said the restrictions placed on Maciel amount to a finding that at least some of the accusations against him are well founded.
According to the story, which cited Vatican sources, Maciel is restricted from publicly acting as a priest. He is not defrocked – “laicized,” in church terms – but he cannot celebrate public Masses, give lectures or other public presentations, or give interviews for print or broadcast. The pope approved the restrictions shortly before Easter, the story said.
The first public allegations against Maciel surfaced in a Courant report in February 1997. Nine former members of the Legionaries said Maciel abused them in the 1950s and ’60s when they were young boys or teenagers, ages 10 to 16, in seminaries in Spain and Italy.
The Vatican did not respond directly to the allegations. Later that year Pope John Paul II appointed Maciel as his personal representative to a high-level meeting on the Americas, signaling his full support for the priest.
Maciel, a native of Mexico, founded the Legionaries of Christ religious order in 1941. The order says it now has 650 priests, and 2,500 seminarians in 20 countries. Its U.S. headquarters is in Orange, Conn., and it has a seminary in nearby Cheshire.
Maciel was repeatedly praised by John Paul and other high church leaders. Maciel and the Legionaries vociferously proclaimed his innocence. Maciel accused the nine men of a conspiracy to defame him.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Thursday that “Maciel is the most powerful Catholic official to ever face Vatican sanctions for child sexual abuse.”
“It would have been easy to let this case quietly go unresolved, as so many similar cases have,” Clohessy said. “We deeply appreciate that, at the highest levels of the church, action has been taken against such an extraordinarily high-ranking Catholic leader.”
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.”
Spokesmen for the Legionaries in Rome and in Orange said that they had no comment because they knew nothing of any Vatican action against Maciel.
Juan Vaca, a former priest who headed the Legionaries’ U.S. operations in Connecticut from 1971 to 1976, and who said he was abused by Maciel beginning when he was a 12-year-old boy, was cautious Thursday.
“My reaction is I am still in my state of expectation until I see the official document and the official statement from the Vatican. We have been waiting for so long,” said Vaca, who lives in Holbrook, N.Y., and teaches psychology at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.
Vaca left the Legionaries in 1976 to join the Diocese of Rockville Centre in New York. He and another priest, the Rev. Felix Alarcon, sent letters to the pope accusing Maciel through official church channels in 1978 and 1989 but never got a response. Vaca left the priesthood. Alarcon, who established the Legionaries’ U.S. headquarters in Connecticut in 1965, is a retired priest in good standing in Madrid.
Vaca and Alarcon were among eight former Legionaries priests and seminarians who filed a canon lawsuit against Maciel in 1998 with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was assigned by Pope John Paul to handle sex-abuse charges against priests. The case lay dormant and no action was taken.
In January 2005, several months before he was elected to succeed John Paul, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger authorized the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which he headed, to investigate the charges. Within days Maciel announced he was retiring because of his age and moved to his hometown of Cotija, Mexico.
A yearlong investigation was concluded at the end of 2005. It was conducted by a Maltese priest, Monsignor Charles J. Scicluna, a “permanent promoter of justice” for the congregation.
Scicluna traveled to the United States and Mexico, where he interviewed more than 30 people, several of whom claimed abuse but had not publicly come forward. Others were summoned to Rome.
Those Scicluna interviewed included former Legionaries priests and people associated with Regnum Christi, an auxiliary of mostly lay people who support the Legionaries. Two who spoke on condition of not being identified said in interviews with a reporter last fall that they knew nothing of sexual abuse but had complaints about what one called “psychological abuse.”
News reports of Scicluna’s investigation triggered confusion after the Legionaries of Christ in Rome sent out a press release last May saying that “the Holy See” informed the order that “there is no canonical process under way into our founder … nor will one be initiated.”
The Legionaries’ statement was confirmed to the press by the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, vice director of the Vatican Press Office. “There is no investigation now, and it is not foreseeable that there will be another investigation in the future,” Benedettini said.
He made no reference to Scicluna’s investigation or how that squared with his statement that there was no investigation.
It turned out that the denial of an investigation originated in the office of Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state and a staunch supporter of Maciel. His office had nothing to do with investigating allegations of sexual abuse. Only the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith could speak to it, and its members are bound by an oath of secrecy.
Gerald Renner is a retired Courant religion writer. An Associated Press report is included in this story.