Laying Bare The Legion

By Jason Berry
First published in The Tablet, May 9, 2009

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone’s recent announcement to the Legionaries of Christ that they are the subject of a “visitation” – a gentle term for investigation – left many members of the ultraconservative religious order more relieved than worried. This visitation by bishops from America, Italy and Mexico will determine how the order, shocked by scandals regarding its founder Marcial Maciel’s sexual misdemeanours, should be reformed, and whether it should exist under its present name and leadership.

In early February, Fr Álvaro Corcuera, the order’s director general, disclosed to its members that their founder, Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado, who died in 2008 at 87, had fathered a daughter, whom the Rome-based newspaper L’Espresso reported was now in her early twenties and living in Spain.

Corcuera’s revelation set off depth charges among the Legion’s 800 priests, 2,500 seminarians, and the 70,000 members of the order’s lay affiliate, Regnum Christi, all of whom had long been taught that Maciel wa a living saint. Under the Legion’s constitution laid down by Maciel, each member took a secret vow never to speak ill of the founder and to report to superiors anyone critical of Maciel or any of the Legionaries.

In this way, the secret vows, unique to the Legion, rewarded spying as an expression of faith. Pope Benedict XVI abolished them in 2006, the same year that the Vatican had removed Maciel from active service, inviting him to a life of penitence, following investigations into his sexual abuse of minors.

“A civil war is starting to emerge in the order,” says a former Legion priest, Fr James Farfaglia, a pastor in Corpus Christi, Texas, with friends still in the order. “Maciel set up a Mexican oligarchy to run the Legion. The people around Maciel all those years had to know [about the daughter] … Many Americans in the Legion are outraged about the deceit.”

Maciel founded the Legion in 1941 in his native Mexico as it was emerging from the Cristero revolt, an uprising of Catholics in the 1920s and 1930s against the anti-Catholicism of the government and its anticlerical constitution. Described in Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory, this violent era was the youthful backdrop that shaped Maciel’s militant spirituality. He then moulded the Legion to evangelise the Church to a more conservative form of Catholicism in the wake of Vatican II.

Maciel’s appeal to wealthy conservatives made him the most successful fundraiser of the modern Church. Pope John Paul II was a pivotal figure in the Legion’s video tapes and fundraising campaigns, Maciel ever at his side. The order has a $650-million (some £435m) annual budget with a central headquarters in Rome, American headquarters in Cheshire, Connecticut, and a Latin American office in Mexico City. Maciel created a far-flung network of seminaries, universities and prep schools.

When he died on 31 January 2008, the Legion website announced, with not a little hubris, that he had gone to heaven. Yet he was buried in a family crypt in his home town of Cotija, Mexico, a world away from the Our Lady of Guadalupe basilica he built in Rome in the 1950s. His tomb there was intended as a shrine, while the Legion promoted him for sainthood. Maciel told associates at a 1992 canonisation in Rome to “wait 30 years” after his death before launching the campaign.

Religious orders draw their spirituality from their founders, and their standing in the Church from the sainthood of those founders. Imagine the Jesuits without Ignatius Loyola or the Franciscans without Francis of Assisi. In that regard, Pope John Paul II, who championed the sainthood of Opus Dei founder Josemaría Escrivá, was clearly in Maciel’s corner. But in Maciel’s twilight years, the carefully constructed story of his heroic life began to come apart.

In 1997, Gerald Renner and I reported in the Connecticut newspaper, the Hartford Courant, that Maciel had sexually abused nine young seminarians during the 1950s and 1960s in Rome. The Vatican refused any comment. Maciel, though claiming his innocence, refused to be interviewed. The Legion launched a publicity campaign denouncing the accusers of a conspiracy to harm Maciel. The next year, a group of men led by José Barba, a professor of Latin American studies with a Harvard doctorate who teaches in Mexico City, filed canonical accusations with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by prefect Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, seeking Maciel’s excommunication. John Paul resisted any action. In late 2004, as the Pope’s health deteriorated, Cardinal Ratzinger ordered an investigation by Mgr Charles Scicluna, a canon lawyer on his staff.

Maciel at that point stepped down as director general, handing control to Fr Corcuera. Two other Mexican priests continue to assist him in the daily operations – Fr Luis Garza and Fr Evarista Sada, both from wealthy families in Monterrey, Mexico’s industrial centre where Maciel gained crucial financial support early in his career.

Mgr Scicluna interviewed dozens of witnesses and was returning to Rome from Mexico City in 2005 just as Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope. In May 2006 a Vatican communiqué removed Maciel from active ministry to a “a life of prayer and penitence”. The communiqué made no reference to Maciel’s victims, and pointedly praised the Legion and Regnum Christi. That same day, an unnamed Vatican source told the Kansas City-based National Catholic Reporter that Maciel had “more than 20 but less than 100” sexual victims. The Legion then issued its own statement, comparing Maciel to Jesus for refusing to answer his accusers and stating that he bore his cross with “tranquillity of conscience”.

The Legion strategy of portraying Maciel as wrongly accused, a suffering future saint, was consistent with the by-laws that he had dictated – that the founder must above all be defended. This blind obedience that he demanded from the Legionaries also permeated the constitution of Regnum Christi, where the highest lay members live together as consecrated celibates, under such articles as:

“103. Recruitment happens in stages, going successfully from kindness to friendship, from friendship to confidence, from confidence to conviction, from conviction to submission.”

“494. No one shall visit outsiders in their homes, deal with them frequently or speak with them by telephone without justifiable reasons.”

“509. The centre’s Director or Manager shall review all correspondence from members … and release that which he or she judges to be opportune.”

“514.1 Live your consecration with a sense of removal as it relates to dealings with your family and try to fundamentally channel this relationship into conquering them for Christ.”

For those embarking on the Vatican visitation – Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado; Bishop Ricardo Watty Urquidi of Tepic, Mexico; and Italian Bishop Giuseppe Versaldi of Alessandria – a major issue will be how to guide priests and seminarians subjected to Maciel’s psychological coercion into a clerical culture quite different from what they have known.

Many Legionaries wrote long, confessional letters to Maciel. Who has the letters? Then there are the lay members. The bishops must advise Rome on how to “reground” Regnum Christi members, who are pivotal to the fundraising. Nothing quite like this has been undertaken in the modern Church but it is difficult to imagine what the Vatican gains by maintaining a movement whose founder was a paedophile and narcissistic sociopath.

There will be plenty of people watching to see what Rome does. Although Maciel’s personality won admiring support from some families, it caused bitter divisions in many others, who today claim their children or siblings were taken by “The Movement”, as Regnum Christi is called, or by the Legion. These cultlike conflicts have only begun to surface.

Consider the case of Christopher Kunze, a graduate in 1984 from the Milwaukee-based Jesuit Marquette University, who became a Legion priest and eventually an undersecretary at the Congregation for the Clergy in 1998. He left in 2001 after learning on his work computer that Maciel was accused of wrong-doing. Kunze returned to America and eventually married. But his sister, Elizabeth, who joined Regnum Christi in 1994, stayed on, working at Regnum Christi schools in Europe, and defending Maciel as a saint, even after the 2006 Vatican order. Their mother, Mary Kunze, a bioethicist, told me for a film documentary: “I believe Elizabeth has been brainwashed.”

Is the Legion a cult? Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, after banning the Legion from his area, told his archdiocesan paper, The Catholic Review: “From the first moment a person joins the Legion, efforts seem to be made to programme each one and to gain full control of his behaviour, of all information he receives, of his thinking and emotions.” Currently the leadership seems unable to disassociate itself from Maciel and his wrongdoing. This may be because its members might have known about his double life. After all, senior members, such as Maciel’s handpicked successor, knew Maciel’s schedule, how he travelled, and the financial disbursements he ordered. Corcuera had several meetings with Pope Benedict, well publicised on the Legion’s website, to assure followers that all was well before the jolting news about the founder’s child.

Until the results of the Vatican’s visitation, it seems that 800 priests and 70,000 lay people will remain caught up in a religious movement that promotes the charism of a child abuser and hypocrite.

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