Father Maciel suspended: New allegations against other Legionary priests on the horizon?

By Brian Mershon


For the Wanderer, June 1, 2006 issue

May 25, 2006


“And He (Our Lord Jesus Christ) said that whoever receives one such little child in my name, receives me. But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged around his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea.

Woe to the world because of scandals. For it is necessary that scandals come: but nevertheless, woe to that man by whom the scandals come.” (Mt. 18: 5-7)

On the morning of May 19, the Holy See issued a short statement on the status of Father Macial Marciel, L.C., founder of the Legionaries of Christ.

“Beginning in 1998, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) received accusations, already partly made public, against Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ, for crimes that fall under the exclusive competence of the congregation. In 2002, Fr. Maciel published a declaration denying the accusations and expressing his displeasure at the offense done him by certain former Legionaries of Christ. In 2005, by reason of his advanced age, Fr. Maciel retired from the office of superior general of the Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ.

“All these elements have been subject to a mature examination by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and — in accordance with the Motu Proprio ‘Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela,’ promulgated on April 30, 2001, by Servant of God John Paul II — the then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, authorized an investigation into the accusations. In the meantime, Pope John II died and Cardinal Ratzinger was elected as the new Pontiff.

“After having attentively studied the results of the investigation, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under the guidance of the new prefect, Cardinal William Joseph Levada, 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 Holy Father approved these decisions.

“Independently of the person of the Founder, the worthy apostolate of the Legionaries of Christ and of the Association ‘Regnum Christi’ is gratefully recognized.”

Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the CDF’s promoter of justice, reportedly had received signed affidavits and/or conducted in-person, or telephone, interviews with more than 100 ex-seminarians and/or priests of the Legion of Christ, with essentially corroborating stories about alleged violations, including sex abuse, by Father Maciel.

News outlets from National Public Radio, The New York Times and the major network news stations have reported the news. There will be no public ministry for Father Maciel any longer. He has accepted a request by the Holy See to a life of penitence and prayer for the rest of his days. There will be no canonical trial, nor official ruling on his guilt or innocence.

New Accusations Against Other Legionary Priests?

However, one of Father Maciel’s original accusers, Paul Lennon, M.A., dropped the following bombshell in what may be yet another nuclear bomb for the Legion of Christ and its Regnum Christi apostolates in this exclusive interview with The Wanderer: Since the May 19 statement on Father Maciel from the Holy See, more alleged victims have come forward claiming sexual abuse, not only by Father Maciel, but from other priests of the Legion of Christ. He said that due to the stigma attached particularly to male sexual abuse, the new accusers wish to remain anonymous at this time. Lennon was with the first class of Legionary priests ordained from Ireland back in 1969.

What Does It All Mean?

“Among canon lawyers, there is an expression, where there is smoke, there is fire,” said Pete Vere, J.C.L. “As more and more allegations come forward, it is very difficult to believe that something may not have happened,” he said.

However, Vere added that while he personally believes that based upon the actions of the Holy See with Father Maciel, “many of the allegations have been substantiated,” he was quick to caution that that he “did not have access to the evidence.”

“Inviting Fr. Maciel to live the remainder of his days as a penitent, without the public exercise of his ministry has a twofold effect: it affirms that the Church takes the charges seriously, considers them to be credible and punishable; secondly, it attempts to affect the ultimate salvation of Fr. Maciel by urging him to repentance,” said Timothy Ferguson, J.C.L., a 38-year-old canonist from Clair Shoals, Michigan.

“It is more than a mere slap on the wrists,” he said, “as it affects the one thing most people hold very dear, his reputation.”

“Since this is referred to as an ‘invitation’ rather than an ‘imposition,’ it doesn’t fall under canon 1342.2, which forbids the declaration of perpetual penalties without a judicial process,” Ferguson said. As an invitation, there would seem to be no means for recourse or appeal against it,” he said.

In other words, if Father Maciel had refused the Holy See’s invitation to serve the rest of his life suspended from public ministry in penitence and prayer, Ferguson said he believed it “would necessitate the initiation of a penal process.”

“I think what we’re seeing with Benedict XVI’s papacy, he is standing for what is not popular, but what is right,” said canonist Vere. “With someone like Fr. Maciel and his stature, it is going to be cleared through the Pope, and this is just another example of him showing he will do the right thing even when it is very painful,” he said.

What does the future hold for the Legion of Christ and the Regnum Christi movement whose “charism” is so tied to the person of “Nuestro Padre,” Father Marcial Maciel?

Repeated requests for an interview with Father Anthony Bannon, L.C., superior for North America, or Father Owen Kearns, L.C., publisher of National Catholic Register, went unanswered by the Legion of Christ.

So in lieu of receiving answers to specific questions, the official media statement by the Legion of Christ (found here http://www.legionariesofchrist.org/eng/index.phtml ) reaffirmed that Father Maciel continues to deny any allegations brought forward by at least 100 accusers. However, the statement does make the following admonition, perhaps revealing more about the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi’s “spirit of obedience and faith” through their “spiritual” lens than perhaps they intended to reveal.

One particular part of the statement read: “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,” read the second point of the Legion’s media statement.

One Interpretation: The Church is Sanhedrin; Pope is Pilate; Maciel is Jesus

For those “with eyes to see and ears to hear,” it appears the Legion’s statement is at the least implying that Father Maciel is living a dry martyrdom, somewhat similar to the real martyrdom as Our Lord Jesus Christ, by not defending himself against made-up and false charges, except that one of the charges against Jesus Christ He was condemned for was true. He claimed to be the Messiah.

This analogy to Jesus Christ Himself is apparent upon reading the simple words of the statement. But who is the judge and who is the jury? Canonically speaking, due to Father Maciel’s “advanced age and frail health,” there will be no judge and jury. But effectively, based on the media statement from the Legion, who is Pontius Pilate and who is the jury, the Sadducees and the Pharisees in this “spiritualized” scenario?

“New Catholic” at http://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/ wrote the following commentary on the Legion of Christ’s response to the Holy See’s ruling on Saturday, May 20.

“Now, the imitation of Christ is a duty of every Christian — but this proclamation of Christ-like qualities surpasses every measure of virtue. For here, the accusers are the victims (or even the supposed victims) of most horrendous crimes. Even if the accusations were false, which does not seem to be the case, is it appropriate to compare a man accused of these most grievous offenses to the Spotless Lamb? The Lord was accused of specific points of law, not of offenses committed against specific victims: and was convicted for the “blasphemy” of declaring that He was, indeed, the Son of God and, thus Divine.

“Yet, that is not all: By comparing Maciel Degollado to Christ under trial, the ‘official response’ makes clear the indirect reference it wishes to make. Maciel is Christ; the competent Church authorities — the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Holy Father himself — are the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate (and Herod, the only one before whom Christ was actually completely silent).

“The man was accused of serious misdeeds. The investigations led to ‘results’ — this means (let no one be fooled by the Vatican’s diplomatic words!) actual results, tangible results, which could have led to much harsher measures. Yet, in his exercise of Petrine authority and Christian charity, the Holy Father guided his ministers “to invite the father to a reserved life of penitence and prayer, relinquishing any form of public ministry” and gave his approval to this charitable measure.

“It is certainly fair to call this ‘invitation’ a ‘cross’: even fair punishments are crosses we are to bear. Yet, here once again, the ‘official response’ crosses the boundary of appropriateness: ‘He [Father Marcial Maciel] has accepted this communiqué 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 troubling messianic aspects of this paragraph are evident.

“Instead of remaining silent (which one would expect from a “obedient” son) or of THANKING [emphasis in original] the competent ecclesiastical authorities for the unbound concern they showed for the health and age of the man, and for the future fortunes of the movements he founded, the ‘official response’ even presents the ‘suffering’ as a privileged means of grace for the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi. This, while the Holy See itself was careful to distinguish the person of the founder from the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi.

“‘Salus animarum suprema lex’ (Can.1752): it was wonderful to watch the Holy See apply this overarching principle of law once again. What a misfortune that such a beautiful spirit had to be squandered by sectarian gall. This official response only deepened the links between the Founder and his movements, which the Holy See had been careful to separate; and instead of the spirit of a Saint Joan of Arc, was filled with the spirit of self-righteousness. There may have been Pharisees in this succession of events — but they were not in the Vatican,” New Catholic concluded his exegesis.

The influential Lutheran convert Father Richard John Neuhaus has previously strongly backed Father Maciel, the Legion of Christ and the Regnum Christi movement.

“It is reasonable to believe the CDF and the Holy Father that he did something wrong or it is nearly impossible to defend the decision,” Neuhaus said.

In fact, Father Neuhaus had previously written that he was morally certain the initial charges against Father Maciel were false.

“Moral certainty is not absolute or metaphysical certainty,” he said, while adding that he had been publicly supportive of Fr. Maciel and the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi.

Father Neuhaus said that he had read the Legion of Christ’s official statement regarding the suspension of Father Maciel’s public ministry and offered the following interpretation:

“Obviously, they view this as a cross that a holy man is bearing in a Christ-like manner, and they solidly affirm solid Catholic teaching that one is purified through suffering,” he said. “There are many instances in Church history where actions taken by the Church’s leadership turned out to be unjust,”

And seemingly offering Pope Gregory the Great as a possible analogy to the Father Maciel situation, Father Neuhaus, quoting Pope Gregory, said, “I loved righteousness, and I hated iniquity so I die in exile.”

“That is obviously the spiritual interpretation I expect most members of the Legion or Regnum Christi will have, with which I have no formal connection; that is their interpretation,” he said.

When questioned about whether a contrarian perspective might be that this suspension of Father Maciel’s public ministries might never have occurred under the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, Father Neuhaus opined that it was “reasonable speculation” to hold.

He also admitted that this news would most likely not be beneficial to the robust and aggressive recruitment efforts and fundraising engaged by the Legion of Christ throughout the world.

Another prominent canon lawyer, who wished to stay on background, explained the real meaning behind the carefully worded Vatican statement. “The mere fact that the CDF assumed jurisdiction over the case is because there was sufficient evidence, approximating probable cause,” he said. Also, he continued, “There was enough evidence of probable cause specifically regarding the crimes against either the sacrament of Holy Penance [the absolution of an accomplice in a mortally sinful action] or the abuse of minors,” he said.

So many are still questioning whether the measure taken by the CDF, with direct authorization by the Holy Father, is essentially an act of caution with an undecided verdict. This indeed seems to be the interpretation given by the Legion of Christ’s media statement.

“As there is no full exoneration, it is presumed that Maciel is guilty of at least one delict reserved exclusively to the CDF under the instruction Sacramentum Sanctitatis Tutela since he has been ‘invited’ to fulfill penance as a result of a canonical investigation into heinous crimes for which there exists serious evidence of wrongdoing,” the canonist concluded.

What About the Victims?

One key perspective seemingly lost in all of this “spinning” of the facts is that a priest who has been entrusted by thousands of parents with the futures of their sons and daughters quite possibly sexually abused as many as a hundred of them. What about the victims?

Paul Lennon, M.A., one of the original accusers of Maciel, and the founding teacher at the Legion’s original School of Faith, said that the original eight victims “are disappointed with the Vatican statement as it seems to leave them hanging.”

“They are disgusted with the Legion’s attempt to cast Maciel, the perpetrator, as a martyr. Dr. Jose de Jesus Barba said that “by wrapping themselves in the flag of orthodoxy and hiding behind Pope John Paul II’s white cassock, in an astute juxtaposition of ‘holiness by association,’ Maciel and the Legion have been shielded against the legitimate complaints of their victims.”

“The victims hope the Vatican statement may reveal the true abusive nature of this pseudo-Catholic Movement and free more victims to come forward, tell the truth, and continue their healing and recovery,” Lennon said.

Extreme Secrecy, Psychological and Spiritual Coercion in Seminary

A young home-schooled high school graduate, who asked to remain anonymous, was excited about testing the call of God and his possible vocation when he entered the Legion of Christ’s seminar in Cheshire, Connecticut, in the autumn of 1989. He said he had to work all summer after graduating from high school in order to be able to afford to pay for a cassock prior to entering the order to “test his call” as the Legion literature dubs it.

He had experienced a visit from Father Anthony Bannon, and was impressed by the Legion’s orthodoxy and dedication to the Church and Pope John Paul II. But as the young man soon learned, orthodoxy does not necessarily mean solid human or spiritual formation, at least in 1989 based upon his experience.

He was at the seminary for 6 weeks “because they wouldn’t let me leave sooner,” he said.

“I was told repeatedly that I could not leave from Cheshire,” he said.

Now a devout Catholic husband and father, the former Legionary of Christ seminarian said the seminarians were exposed to daily psychological manipulation when he attended. He said the techniques were “powerfully psychologically coercive.” He relayed that the Legion priests opened all seminarians’ incoming and outgoing mail, as well as listened in on telephone conversations with family members.

“Absolutely,” he said. “They read all of my letters; they were listening to telephone calls; I have no doubt,” he said.

“I kept asking to leave and they wouldn’t let me,” he said. “I told them I didn’t feel comfortable taking the cassock, and I met with the novice master more than one occasion and said I didn’t understand why they did the things they did.”

After six weeks, in desperation one evening, he stayed up late and penned a 14-page letter of questions and presented it to his superior the next day. “At 10 a.m. the next day, they said I was lying about them and said I need to retract everything I said,” he said. After he refused to comply with their demands, he said they finally allowed him to go home the next day.

The elements of extreme secrecy were apparent throughout, he said. Although he said in his six weeks in the Cheshire seminary, he did not witness any sexual abuse, he did watch as one brother was on his way to a total mental breakdown, he said. “They preyed on some guys’ insecurities, but I did witness the beginning of the breakdown of one of the brothers,” he said.

“He was an eloquent speaker and a really good guy, but 10 months later after he left, he was a completely different guy,” he said. “Later, I found out he had suffered a total mental breakdown and had left,” he said. “The level of psychological pressure was always there.”

Advice to Current Regnum Christi Parents: Buyer Beware!

Lennon advises extreme caution should be exercised by parents when contemplating sending their sons to boys activities, camps, “test your call” weekends and/or the Legion’s apostolic school. “Catholic Kids Net,” summer camps for boys and girls, “Familia” and other such Regnum Christi apostolates are designed as “capturing” grounds for first parents, and then eventually their children, particularly boys for possible early “formation” in the Apostolic School.

Lennon said that if he were a parent with children, “I would demand that the credentials of all Legion of Christ priests working at these activities, including the Apostolic School, be made available to parents. and that they see these documents,” he said. According to Lennon, if parents decide to send them, this extra precaution is necessary because “the Legionaries lie through their teeth to a degree that Americans do not even suspect,” he said.

Lennon also cautioned against the Legionaries tactic of control at early ages through “spiritual direction,” so-called. “I would not allow my children to have ‘spiritual direction’ with people who are not trained spiritual directors,” he said. Especially in light of the fact that most young children, and even teenagers, are just learning how to pray, the actual need for spiritual direction is questionable, both spiritually and psychologically.

“I don’t believe children who are so young need spiritual direction,” he said. “Isn’t confession enough?” Lennon asked.

When asked what advice he would give to current members of Regnum Christi with sons in seminary, the apostolic school or daughters in the Rhode Island girls’ school discerning the consecrated life, the now father and husband, anonymous former seminarian said, “Legionaries don’t just leave their families, they [are taught] turn their backs on their families.”

“It broke down into disparaging comments about their fathers and mothers and their families,” he said. “It was shocking.”

Finally, the former seminarian said that some of the young men in seminary [often from Mexico] had been shipped off to Legionary school in Spain when they were 6 and 7, and when they came back to the U.S. seminary, “They hated their parents and their families.”

“These folks who are very invested in the Legion — they need to investigate how much the Legion is invested in them.”

[Editor’s note: Both anonymous sources quoted here asked not to be named due to fear of future reprisals from the Legionaries of Christ. Other potential interviewees who said they would like to be interviewed to relay their personal testimonials with the Legion of Christ, and particularly their seminary experiences, refused to be interviewed to avoid suspected possible reprisals from the Legionaries of Christ.]

Brian Mershon is a commentator on cultural issues from a classical Catholic perspective. His trade is in media relations, and his vocation is as a husband to his beloved wife Tracey and father to his six living children. He attempts to assist his family and himself in attaining eternal salvation through frequent attendance at the Traditional Latin rite of Mass, homeschooling, and building Catholic culture in the buckle of the Bible Belt of Greenville, South Carolina.

© Copyright 2006 by Brian Mershon

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