The charismatic founder of the conservative religious order, the Legionaries of Christ, Maciel avoided for nearly 30 years answering complaints that he abused young boys in seminaries.
Pope John Paul II never responded to formal complaints against Maciel made through official church channels in 1978 and 1989, and a canon law case against him was quashed without explanation in 1999.
But now, in the wake of his experience handling sex abuse cases as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict is bent on removing what he called “filth” in the church in a widely publicized sermon last year.
In the most high-profile case on his watch so far, Benedict has moved against Maciel, who had been repeatedly praised by John Paul over the years and had highly placed friends all over the Vatican.
As a result of Benedict’s action, Maciel, 86 and ailing in his hometown of Cotija, Mexico, finds himself stripped of his public persona as a priest, no longer able to preach, say Mass in public or speak to the media.
It is a most ignominious end for a man who has been a priest for 62 years and a respected church leader for half a century.
The restrictions placed on him after a year’s investigation are most gentle compared to what the penalty could have been – defrocking (or “laicization” as the church calls it), suspension or even excommunication had a canonical trial been held.
Instead, the Vatican expressed compassion. It placed a statement on its website Friday (www.vatican.va) saying that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “decided – bearing in mind Fr. Maciel’s advanced age and his delicate health – to forgo a canonical hearing and to invite the father to a reserved life of penitence and prayer, relinquishing any form of public ministry.”
The statement indicated that the decision was made by the new head of the congregation, American Cardinal William J. Levada, and approved by Benedict.
“It’s a polite way of saying he has been suspended for life,” said the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, a Dominican priest and canon lawyer who has been a strong advocate for sexual abuse victims. The sanctions against Maciel would not have been imposed had the congregation not found some of the charges against him well-founded, Doyle said.
The Vatican “showed an extraordinary degree of compassion for the accused, but I have seen other cases where older priests have not been laicized because of their age,” Doyle said.
The Vatican did not publicly specify what the accusations against Maciel were, but referred to the canon law case brought against him in 1998, which entailed sexual abuse charges brought by nine former Legionaries. The charges were first made public in The Courant in 1997. The accusers claimed Maciel abused them during the 1950s and 1960s when they were young boys or teenagers, ages 10 to 16, in seminaries in Spain and Italy.
In canon law, sexual abuse charges have an effective statute of limitations of 10 years, but that can be waived by the pope. However, in the eyes of the church, the most serious charge against Maciel has no limitation – that he absolved in confession some of the boys he is accused of abusing. Such a charge under canon law amounts to a sacrilege of the sacrament of reconciliation, which incurs automatic excommunication.
During the yearlong investigation by Monsignor Charles J. Scicluna, a “permanent promoter of justice” for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, other people surfaced who had not come forward before and said they had been abused by Maciel. Scicluna interviewed more than 30 people in the investigation, which concluded at the end of 2005.
In a statement released from the Legionaries’ U.S. headquarters in Orange, Conn., Maciel continued to proclaim his innocence.
“Facing the accusations made against him, he declared his innocence and, following the example of Jesus Christ, decided not to defend himself in any way,” the statement said.
“He has accepted this communique with faith, complete serenity and tranquility of conscience, knowing that it is a new cross that God, the Father of Mercy, has allowed him to suffer and that will obtain many graces for the Legion of Christ and the Regnum Christi Movement,” the most lay auxiliary of the Legion.
Glenn Favreau, a former Legionary who worked with Maciel in his Rome headquarters and is now a leading critic of the Legion, said he expects the Vatican to quietly focus attention on reforming the religious order. He said many of the people Scicluna spoke to in his investigation were people who knew nothing of sexual abuse.
They testified about what Favreau said was the intensely secretive and psychologically abusive way that Maciel set up the Legion to operate. Favreau, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, said for instance the Legionaries must take private vows not to criticize actions of superiors and to report on those who did. He said the confidentiality of spiritual counseling is often violated.
Maciel founded the Legionaries of Christ in 1941. The order says it now has 650 priests and 2,500 seminarians in 20 countries. One of those seminaries is in Cheshire.
Although the Vatican statement said it “gratefully recognized” the work of the Legionaries and of Regnum Christi, Favreau said that was just cover.
“It will be handled silently,” he said. “No one said everything was hunky-dory.”
Gerald Renner is a retired Courant religion writer.