Scandal: the story of Fr Maciel

By Gerald Renner



The founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Marcial Maciel, revered by many as a saint, has finally been disciplined by Pope Benedict for sexually abusing seminarians. But why did he escape censure for so long?

He was a priest for 62 years and a respected church leader for half a century. Now Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado’s ecclesiastical career has reached a most ignominious end. The 86-year-old cannot say Mass, give lectures, or give interviews to the media. He is instead to observe a life of penitence and prayer following the Vatican’s request that the founder of the conservative Legionaries of Christ observe a series of restrictions on his ministry following a decade-long investigation into allegations of sexual abuse.

But the most puzzling question about these Vatican sanctions imposed on the accused paedophile is: how did he escape for so long? Part of the reason must be sheer disbelief, particularly among his defenders on the right wing of the Church. This is a man who for much of his life was respected as a charismatic figure and master fundraiser who built up a fast-growing religious order of Spanish-speaking priests, seen by the Vatican as a counter to the inroads that evangelicals are making in Latin America.

The order, which Maciel founded in Mexico in 1941 when he was a 21-year-old student, has a significant presence in that country, where it runs a number of schools for well-heeled children. Today its numbers include 650 priests and 2,500 seminarians in 20 countries. It has 11 universities, including its first in the United States, the newly incorporated University of Sacramento in California.

Maciel was repeatedly praised by senior church leaders, particularly Pope John Paul II, who threw a protective arm around him from the beginning of his pontificate in 1978 and continued to shield him up almost to his death. He was used to smear campaigns against priests by Communists in his native Poland, and he was obviously convinced when the dynamic Mexican claimed that others were out to defame him.

Then there was the gratitude the Pope clearly felt for the way Maciel engineered the first foreign trip of his pontificate to Mexico in 1979. Maciel arranged a personal invitation to John Paul from the then Mexican president, José Lopez Portillo. It was considered a diplomatic coup in a country that had strong anti-clerical laws and a legacy of bloody persecutions of Catholics in the 1920s and 1930s.

John Paul’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI, harbours no such illusions of the saintliness of those working in the vineyard. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he had been given charge of handling priestly sexual abuse cases from all over the world. It opened the eyes of the scholarly theologian to the extent that he complained in a widely reported Good Friday meditation last year, shortly before he was elected Pope: “How much filth there is in the Church and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him [Jesus Christ].�

In late 1994, as John Paul was steadily failing, Cardinal Ratzinger authorised an investigation into the long-dormant canon law case that Maciel had abused young boys and teenagers in seminaries in Spain and Italy. Rumours had long dogged the Legionaries’ founder, with complaints as long ago as the 1950s that he had been involved in excessive control over seminarians and in drug abuse.

The complaints about sexual abuse first surfaced in the 1990s when nine former members of the Legionaries went public with their complaint that they had been abused by Maciel as seminarians and young priests as long ago as the 1940s. Maciel was also charged with having given persons with whom he had committed a sin absolution in confession, an excommunicable offence. John Paul never responded to formal complaints against Maciel made through official church channels in 1978 and 1989. The first exposé of the charges was published in The Hartford Courant in 1997 and picked up by others, but there was no response from the Vatican. A canon law case against Maciel was quashed without explanation in 1999.

After the case was reopened in 2004 on the order of Cardinal Ratzinger, more testimonies against Maciel were collected. The result of the investigation, concluded at the end of 2005, and announced last week, is in effect a life suspension as a priest, although the Vatican stated that it was “bearing in mind Fr Maciel’s advanced age and his delicate health� to avoid a canonical trial.

Indeed, the restrictions placed on him are most gentle compared to what the penalty could have been had a canonical trial been held – defrocking (or “laicisation� as the Church calls it), suspension or even excommunication. But the lack of a canonical trial leaves an ambiguity that Maciel quickly seized on. In a statement released by the Legionaries, Maciel, retired in his home town of Cotija, Mexico, proclaimed his innocence but said he would abide by the Vatican’s decision. The Legionaries compared him to Jesus Christ, deciding “not to defend himself in any way�.

Canon lawyers and other church observers say that no sanctions would have been imposed had not at least some of the accusations against him been well-founded. But that does not matter to the Legion and its supporters, who can expect to continue proclaiming their leader to be saintly and heroically accepting of an unjust verdict.

Richard John Neuhaus, a leading American conservative who has been at the forefront in defence of Maciel and is editor of the magazine First Things, admits that “It is reasonable to believe that [the CDF and the Holy Father] think Fr Maciel did do something wrong�, but also compares Maciel to Joan of Arc, as someone the Church has unjustly persecuted.

Maciel’s accusers are not entirely satisfied either. “We feel some element of vindication in that the Vatican recognised that he has been guilty and he has been condemned,� said Juan Vaca, 68, of Holbrook, New York, one of the nine who brought the canon law case. But “the Vatican is double-talking again� in not clearly specifying Maciel’s degree of guilt, he said.

Vaca said he joined the Legionaries from a small Mexican village when he was recruited at the age of 10 by Maciel, who began abusing him when he was 12 in a Legion seminary in Spain. Vaca came to be head of the Legionaries in the United States, but left the order in 1976 to join the Diocese of Rockville Centre in New York. He and another priest who had been abused, Fr Felix Alarcon, sent letters to the Pope through official church channels accusing Maciel in 1978 and 1989 but never got a response. Vaca left the priesthood and is now a college teacher of psychology. Fr Alarcon, who established the Legionaries’ US headquarters in Connecticut in 1965, is a retired priest in good standing in Madrid.

He sees the decision by Pope Benedict to take action against Maciel as significant. “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,� Fr Alarcon, 72, said in a telephone interview.

Bitterness at the way John Paul dismissed their complaints is a recurring theme among those who repeatedly tried to gain his attention. Saul Barrales, 74, who was fired from a Catholic school in Mexico after he publicly joined those who accused Maciel of abusing them, said, “I congratulate the Vatican in that finally the Pope did something. 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.�

After the case was reopened in 2004, a year-long investigation conducted by Mgr Charles J. Scicluna, a Maltese priest who is “permanent promoter of justice� for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, led to other people surfacing who had not come forward before to say that they too had been abused by Maciel. There were still others, who knew nothing of sexual abuse, but who testified to what they called the psychological abuse and coercive tactics of the Legion and its mostly lay auxiliary, Regnum Christi.

In some parts of the world the Legionaries have suffered a major downturn in their fortunes following the scandal over Maciel. Recruitment of seminarians has fallen dramatically in Ireland in recent years, as many Irish bishops have refused to cooperate with the order. In the United States bishops have barred or severely restricted the Legion and Regnum Christi in five dioceses: St Paul-Minneapolis; Los Angeles; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Richmond, Virginia; and Columbus, Ohio – because of its secretive methods of operating. Archbishop Harry Flynn of St Paul-Minneapolis has accused the order of setting up a “parallel Church�. Those who were abused have voiced their disappointment that the Vatican had thanked the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi for their work when what is really needed is reform.

As José de J. Barba Martin, 66, a university professor in Mexico City and a leader among the former Legionaries who brought the canon law suit against Maciel, put it: “When the stem is corrupt so are the branches.�

Gerald Renner is a former religion writer for The Hartford Courant in Connecticut and co-author, with Jason Berry, of Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, published by Free Press.


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