Vatican Punishes a Leader After Abuse Charges




ROME, May 19 — The Vatican cautiously acknowledged today long-standing allegations of sexual abuse by the founder of a prominent Catholic order, asking him to give up his public ministry in favor of a quiet life of “prayer and penitence.”

The Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, seen in Spain in 2001, was asked to renounce celebrating public Masses and live a life of “prayer and repentance.”

The Rev. Marcial Maciel, with by Pope John Paul II in 2004, was warmly regarded the pontiff.

The statement by the Vatican did not address the allegations themselves. But it marked a significant action by Pope Benedict XVI on a sensitive issue for the church, veering close to a finding of guilt against the highest profile church figure to be accused of sex abuse: the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, 86, founder of the fast-growing Legionaries of Christ, who was often praised by Pope John Paul II.

The statement said that Father Maciel, who founded the order in Mexico, would not undergo a church trial for the allegations against him because of his “advanced age” and “weak health.” The Vatican did not disclose the allegations, but at least nine men have accused him of molesting them when they were young.

But the statement said the Vatican’s doctrinal office had decided “to invite the father to a life restricted to prayer and penitence, renouncing any public ministry. The Holy Father has approved these decisions.”

The Legionaries, now based in Connecticut, released a statement noting that Father Maciel has long “declared his innocence,” but decided not to defend himself, “following the example of Jesus.”

The group said he “has accepted this communiqué with faith, complete serenity and tranquillity of conscience, knowing that it is a new cross that God, the Father of Mercy, has allowed him to suffer.”

Father Maciel stepped down from the order’s leadership last year.

Reactions to the Vatican decision varied, with some praising the Pope for taking so public a stand and others saying it did not go far enough given the seriousness of the allegations against Father Maciel himself and the wider crisis of confidence in the church over sexual abuse.

“It’s tempting and easy to want to believe that this is a positive long-term sign,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, who praised the Vatican for a statement that he said “sanctioned” Father Maciel.

“But I think one act, even a brave one, isn’t necessarily indicative of a trend,” he added.

Juan Vaca, a former priest in the Legionaries who said Father Maciel abused him over 10 years starting in 1950 when he was 12, said he felt Father Maciel should be removed from the priesthood entirely — something the Vatican decision did not do.

“It’s not enough,” Mr. Vaca, an adjunct professor of psychology and sociology at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., said in an interview on Thursday as reports of the decision began leaking out. “Because this man has done a lot of damage to a lot of people — to children and supporters and even the hierarchy of the church.”

The decision was first made public on Thursday on the Web site of National Catholic Reporter.

The Vatican document did not specify exactly what duties Father Maciel would be barred from, but the National Catholic Reporter quoted anonymous Vatican officials as saying he could not celebrate mass publicly or give speeches or interviews.

Since its founding in 1941, the Legionaries have tracked an impressive arc of growth and influence with Father Maciel as its charismatic helmsman: It now has 650 priests worldwide, 2,500 seminarians in 20 countries and 50,000 members in its lay affiliate, Regnum Christi. The order runs a dozen universities, and recently opened its first degree-granting college in the United States, the University of Sacramento.

Todd Carpunky, a lawyer in New York City who belonged to the Legion for six years as a religious brother, said, “The Vatican’s move is going to be devastating because, unlike a lot of religious orders like the Jesuits, the Legion is the cult of the persona of Maciel. When you go to a Legion home or a Legion center, there are pictures of Maciel hanging next to pictures of Jesus. The Legionaries always call him ‘Nuestro Padre,’ which in Spanish means ‘Our Father.’ ”

Pope John Paul II had repeatedly praised Father Maciel and his work, most recently at a public audience on Nov. 30, 2004, for the 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.

In 1994, in a trip to Mexico, Pope John Paul II called him “an efficacious guide to youth” — a statement that several victims said prompted them to make complaints.

Two years later, nine victims came forward in newspapers articles and a book, “Vows of Silence,” (Free Press: 2004), alleging that Father Maciel had abused them when they were between the ages of 10 and 16.

As an indication of Father Maciel’s influence, a number of influential American Catholics wrote testimonies defending him on the Legionaries website in 2002. They included George Weigel, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, Mary Ann Glendon, William Bennett and William Donohue.

On Friday, Father Neuhaus, editor of ‘First Things,’ an ecumenical magazine based in New York, said he still believed that the charges against Father Maciel are “unfounded.”

“There is nothing in the Vatican statement that suggests that the word ‘penance’ is meant as a punitive measure,” he said.

Asked why then the Vatican would take any action then, he said, “It wouldn’t be the first time that an innocent and indeed holy person was unfairly treated by church authority.”

The Maciel case has presented a complex tableau for the church’s willingness to confront allegations of sexual abuse, the legacy of Pope John Paul II and what many church experts say is the evolving view on the issue of sex abuse by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who last year became Benedict XVI.

John Paul has often been criticized for minimizing the scandal as it broke in the United States, and many accusers cited as one grey area in his papacy his long friendship and public support of Father Maciel.

“I don’t think he could ever get his mind around this business,” said John Wilkins, the former editor of the influential British Catholic magazine, the Tablet. “For him the priesthood was such a high ideal.”

The issue is more complicated for the pope, who as Cardinal Ratzingerheaded the church’s doctrinal office. He was cited in “Vows of Silence” as wondering in 1999 whether it was “prudent” to pursue the allegations against Father Maciel, given his contributions to the church. That year, he reportedly halted the case against Father Maciel.

And in 2002, as the American church was in an uproar over abuse, Cardinal Ratzinger said the because of the media attention given to it, “one comes to the conclusion that it is intentional, manipulated — that there is a desire to discredit the church.”

But colleagues and other church experts said his view began to change as his office was flooded with allegations of sex abuse. In 2004, his office reopened the case against Father Maciel, interviewing dozens of victims and other witnesses. Then, before he became pope, Cardinal Ratzinger spoke last year of the need to remove “filth” in the church, widely interpreted to mean priests who abused children.

Jason Berry, co-author of “Vows of Silence,” said that the judgment shows that the Vatican is still uncertain about how to deal with the sex abuse issue or how to apply church law evenly in the face of the mountain of allegations. While some priests have been defrocked, he noted, the better-connected Father Maciel received a lighter sanction.

“It is a judgment that falls far short of a penalty commensurate with what he did,” he said. “He sexually abused a great number of boys who carried that trauma like a cross upon the soul through their lives.

“You could look at it as an attempt to be Solomonic, cutting the baby down the middle,” he added. “And yet what it really does is raise more questions about the inability of the canon law system to function.”

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