For years they tried futilely to call to the attention of church authorities the indignities they suffered in seminaries under the man they called “Nuestro Padre,” Our Father, the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado.
The former members of Maciel’s Legionaries of Christ are now old men who have made a success of their lives after leaving the legion.
But burning in their souls has been a desire to seek justice and a recognition by the Vatican of the wrongs done them in seminaries in Spain and Italy in the 1950s and ’60s.
That recognition came Friday when the Vatican announced, after a year’s investigation, that Maciel, 86, had been asked to give up appearing in public as a priest and to live “a reserved life of penitence and prayer.”
Still the victory is not complete.
“We feel some element of vindication in that the Vatican recognized that he has been guilty and he has been condemned,” said Juan Vaca, 68, of Holbrook, N.Y., one of the accusers who flew to Mexico City to be with his companions. At the same time, he said Saturday, “the Vatican is double-talking again” in not clearly specifying Maciel’s degree of guilt.
The Vatican’s statement, approved by Pope Benedict XVI, said it was “bearing in mind Father Maciel’s advanced age and his delicate health” to avoid a canonical trial.
Canon lawyers and other church observers say that no sanctions would have been imposed had the Vatican not found him guilty of at least some of the accusations.
But the fact there was no canonical trial to reach a definitive judgment of guilt left an ambiguity which Maciel quickly seized on. In a statement released by the Legionaries, Maciel, retired in his hometown of Cotija, Mexico, proclaimed his innocence but said he would abide by the Vatican’s decision.
That hasn’t set well with some of Maciel’s accusers, eight of whom brought a canon law suit against him in 1998. Others who said they were abused are reported to have come forward to the church’s investigator, according to the National Catholic Reporter, an independent news weekly, which broke the news of Vatican sanctions against Maciel.
“We feel thankful to some extent. We feel a sense of trust and a new stream of air have entered the church,” said Jose de J. Barba Martin, 66, a college professor in Mexico City and a leader among eight former Legionaries who brought the canon law suit against Maciel.
Nevertheless, Barba said in a telephone interview from Mexico City, “Arturo [Jurado] and I feel this statement has left an opening for the Legionaries to say Father Maciel is innocent.”
Jurado, 66, recently retired as an instructor at the U.S. Defense Department School of Linguistics in Monterey, Calif., and moved to Mexico. He was with Barba and two others of the eight men who brought the Vatican suit in Mexico City Saturday. They were interviewed by the Mexican media.
The story was also big news in Madrid, where the Rev. Felix Alarcon is now retired after years of working in Rockville Centre, N.Y., and Venice, Fla. He too was one of the eight accusing Maciel.
“The church has for the first time put herself on the side of the victims. The other pope [John Paul] wasn’t able to do this. This pope will force them to keep their feet on the ground,” Alarcon, 72, said in a telephone interview.
Barba and Jurado said they spoke to their Vatican-sanctioned lawyer, Martha Wegan, who was “very pleased and happy” with the verdict. But they said they are demanding direct recognition by the Vatican through her.
“We have asked our lawyer to demand we have a written communication [from the Vatican] to us,” Barba said. It wasn’t enough that the Vatican make a public statement, he said.
Barba said he and the others were very disappointed that the Vatican thanked the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi, its mostly lay auxiliary, for their work when what is really needed is reform.
“When the stem is corrupt so are the branches,” Barba said.
Another accuser with the group in Mexico City was Saul Barrales, 74, who was fired as a teacher in a Catholic school when he came out against Maciel in the first public expose of the accusations in The Courant in 1997.
“I congratulate the Vatican in that finally the pope did something,” he told The Associated Press. “Pope John Paul II supported [Maciel] but I think he was deceived or he wasn’t totally informed of the truth. But the present pope is doing the right thing.”
Maciel founded the Legionaries in Mexico in 1941 and it has a significant presence in that country, where it runs a number of schools for children of the elite classes. It has grown to be an order of 650 priests and 2,500 seminarians in 20 countries. It has 11 universities, including its first in this country, the newly incorporated University of Sacramento in California. It also has about 25 elementary and high schools run directly by the Legion or by Regnum Christi.
Its U.S. headquarters are in Orange, it has a seminary in Cheshire and a fundraising operation in Hamden. It has been barred from four dioceses – Minneapolis-St. Paul; Los Angeles; Baton Rouge, La.; and Columbus, Ohio – because of its secretive methods of operating. Archbishop Harry Flynn of Minneapolis-St. Paul accused the order of setting up a “parallel church.”
Throughout his reign, Pope John Paul II ignored accusations against Maciel, whom he repeatedly praised. Vaca sent letters to the pope outlining his charges against Maciel through official church channels in 1978 and again in 1989. He never received an answer.
John Paul made the first public trip of his pontificate to Mexico in 1979, after having been elected in 1978. Maciel paved the way, securing a personal invitation to the pope from the then-Mexican president, JosÃ© Lopez Portillo. It was considered a great diplomatic coup in a country with strong anti-clerical laws and which endured bloody persecutions of Catholics in the 1920s and ’30s. Maciel became a regular member of the pope’s inner circle on subsequent trips to Mexico.
Coincidentally, the Vatican announced April 28 that one of Maciel’s uncles, Rafael GuÃzar Valencia, bishop of Veracruz, Mexico, who died in 1938, will be declared a saint. He went underground during a period of bloody persecution and ran a clandestine seminary, which Maciel attended when was 16. The day after GuÃzar died, the seminary administrator expelled Maciel in what Maciel later called a “misunderstanding.” He was later expelled from another seminary, in New Mexico, in another “misunderstanding,” but was eventually ordained in 1944 by another bishop who was a close relative.
No date has been announced for GuÃzar’s canonization, but as a suspended priest it is unlikely that Maciel will be able to attend.