The Legion of Christ: Hope for the Church?

This article appears in the May 2005 edition of The New Oxford Review


In the unsettled atmosphere of a Church rocked to its core by clerical sexual abuse scandals, Catholics, facing a dearth of priestly vocations, anxiously cast about for signs of hope. Until recently, one of those signs has been the Legion of Christ. Spurred on by Pope John Paul II’s demonstrative approval of Father Maciel, the Legion’s founder, the Rome based religious order has made enormous inroads in certain U.S. circles. Founded in Mexico in 1941 by Marciel Maciel Degollado when he was a seminarian, the Legion now claims 500 priests, another 2,500 seminarians, eleven universities and over 150 prep schools worldwide. Legionary priests serve in the United States. The order operates a seminary and novitiate in Connecticut. The lay movement associated with the Legion is called Regnum Christi.

But today the luster surrounding the Legion is showing tarnish. There are skirmishes between Legionaries and lay people over schools. Three U. S. dioceses have forbidden the Legion to operate within their environs: the Diocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Archbishop Harry Flynn, Columbus, OH, Bishop Emertius James A. Griffin, and Baton Rouge, LA, Bishop Robert Muench. The Legion and its auxiliary lay movement, Regnum Christi, are coming under fire from former members. They accuse the order of manipulation, mind-control, and subversive tactics that could rise to the level of a cult. Former Legionaries and Regnum Christi members have formed a network, ReGain. Through ReGain’s web site, which features news articles and personal testimonies, members say they seek to inform the public of the true nature of the Legion’s policies and practices as well as to provide healing and reintegration for those psychologically damaged by the order. ( The most explosive situation for the Legion of Christ, however, is the charges made by a number of former Legionary priests that Father Maciel sexually abused them for years beginning when they were children in the Legion’s minor seminaries.

In the United States, the Legion has operated an almost a subterranean existence in Connecticut since the middle sixties. Very little was known about them until the past ten years. In the early 1990s, a Hartford Courant journalist, George Renner, attempted to interview the Rev. Anthony Bannon, the Legion’s national director for a story on the seminary. Bannon’s unexpected refusal to talk to a journalist peaked Renner’s interest, and he began to look more closely at the order. When Renner wrote an article about the Legion in a March 25, 1996 issue of the Courant, he began receiving phone calls about the secretive Cheshire seminary where “200 young men in black cassocks do preparatory studies for the priesthood before further schooling in Spain and Italy.� After meeting with several former seminarians, all of whom complained of being ensnared in a closed system and subjected to fierce control and brainwashing, Renner wrote more extensively about the Legion’s strange practices.

In 2002, the Boston Herald exposed a policy of sexual abuse cover-ups by Catholic bishops nationwide. Once the lid was blown off, hundreds of victims came forward with charges of sexual abuse by clerics. Similar reports of alleged and confirmed cases, the majority of which involved homosexual priests assaulting teen-age boys, appeared in Ireland, Canada, and Australia. An identical policy of hierarchical cover-up and on-going transfer of offending clerics prevailed. In Italy, however, few if any such reports came to light. Journalists claim non-English speaking countries, such as Mexico, Spain and Italy where the Legion is based, operate under different legal codes, and facts about abuse cases are difficult to obtain. This situation allowed Vatican scoffers to claim that the scandals were “an American problem,� one trumped up by an anti-Catholic press, accusations that ill serve the cause of justice.

The charges against Fr. Maciel involve nine men, all former Legionaries. For some, the abuse began when they were barely 12 years of age, and continued until the men were in their mid-twenties. Much of the abuse took place in Mexico, Spain and Italy. Two of the men, Mexican Father Juan Vaca and Spanish Father Felix Alarcon, served the Legion in the U.S. Father Alarcon opened the Legion of Christ center in Connecticut in 1965 and Father Vaca served for five years as the U.S. Legion director before leaving the order. Three of the nine filed a canonical suit against Maciel and have been waiting years for it to be heard.

Just after this past Thanksgiving, the Pope publicly honored Father Maciel at ceremonies in Rome. But the first week of January, 2005, , it was reported that Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, a Canon lawyer working as Promoter of Justice for the Vatican’s Congregation for the Defense of the Faith (CDF), stated that the long-standing case of former Legionaries who accuse Father Maciel of molesting them when they were in the Legion’s minor seminary, could be reopened. Few people know that the National Catholic Register, a weekly newspaper, is owned by the Legion. To date the Register has refused to report on the Holy See’s new investigation of Maciel.

Determining the guilt or innocence of Father Maciel and investigating the practices of his order, an order that that enjoys enormous power and influence in the Church is crucial. Failing to make an investigation of the credible charges by former Legionary priests would tear at the very integrity of the Church whose duty it is to justice and protect her most vulnerable members.

In 2004, Catholic journalist Gerald Renner and Jason Berry published Vows of Silence – The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II. The book is a two-part account of the lives of two very different priests, American Dominican Father Thomas Doyle, and Mexican Legion of Christ founder, Father Marciel Maciel. Doyle was the priest who, in the mid-eighties, warned the U. S. Bishops of the explosive nature of the on-going cover-up of abuser priests. Having given up a Vatican diplomatic career, Father Doyle has embraced the cause of justice for the victims while Father Maciel has carefully built an enormously wealthy empire in the heart of the Roman Catholic Church despite serious accusations leveled against him.

When the scandals erupted in 2002, it came as no surprise to Gerald Renner, whose articles about the Legion of Christ began appearing in the Hartford Courant in 1996. One day a priest notified Renner with a tip about Father Maciel’s “aberration.� He asked Renner to contact Jason Berry. Berry, a New Orleans journalist, covered the 1984 case of the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, who was criminally charged with sexually molesting eleven boys in the Lafayette diocese. Berry wrote about the case in a 1992 book, Lead us Not into Temptation.

Following the publication of his book, Berry was contacted by former Legionary Arturo Jurado, who in a disturbing interview told him of terrible things Father Maciel had done to him and others. Renner and Berry teamed up to begin what turned out to be an in-depth look at the United States Bishops’ policies, and the charges against the Mexican order. Their six-year investigation of Fr. Maciel and the Legion took them from Mexico City across the Atlantic to the Vatican offices in Rome with multiple points stops in between. The result was Vows of Silence.

Carl Cannon, White House correspondent for the National Journal says in his review, “Vows of Silence is a must read –investigative journalism at its best, tracking abuses that were decades in the making and go far beyond the American clergy, with responsibility at the highest levels of the Vatican….the book is painstakingly researched, beautifully written and gives sweeping historical context on issues of specific, current relevance. If this were fiction, it would be a chilling narrative. Alas, it is contemporary human history, brought to you by the two American authors who know more about this subject than anyone else writing about it.�

For Catholics longing for orthodoxy, reverent liturgies, a renewed emphasis on devotion, and disciplined Catholic schools, the Legion has seemed an answer to their prayers. The sight of handsome, young men with impeccable manners striding about in black cassocks and “imbued with the vision of John Paul IIâ€� is irresistible. When the Legion of Christ seminarians and priests began courting prosperous, conservative American Catholics — a practice begun in Mexico that has earned them there the dubious title of “the millionaires of Christâ€� — formerly disillusioned Catholics poured money into the order, hoping that sanity was returning to the Church.

Supporters and members of the Legion point to the large number of vocations as positive fruit. But critics charge seminary students are denied any true discernment of their vocations. Instead, through mind-control tactics, the young boys are skillfully recruited and become totally “ownedâ€� by the order — body, mind and soul. The stories coming out of Georgia, Connecticut, Minnesota, Texas and other states are multiplying and becoming harder to ignore. At the least, the testimonies of devout lay parents who have lost their sons and daughters to a tightly closed system that replaces their familial role with that of the order are heartbreaking accounts deserving of attention. Is the Legion truly the hope of the Church, or a Machiavellian deception that threatens it? The question begs for an answer.


Resources: ReGain Network web site:

Cult like characteristics of the Legion: Discouraging Questioning, Numbing the Mind, Dictating Details –
Paper presented at the American Family Foundation Conference, October 18, 2003 –

Vows of Silence – Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, Free Press, 2004, Jason Berry and Gerald Renner.

Cecilia H. Martin, author of Confusion In the Pews, is the editor of The Catholic Advocate, She writes from Jacksonville, Florida.
February 24, 2005

The following testimony was given to the Ms. Martin with permission to publish along with
Martin’s article. The mother wishes to remain anonymous because her family still suffers from the effect of membership in the Legion.

Married to the Legion: Massive Confusion of Loyalties and Misuse of Vows
A mother’s testimony

‘First Profession Is My Wedding Day!’

Writing to a distraught mother whose son had just taken his first vows as a professed seminarian with the Legion of Christ, a former Legionary priest said: “I pray for him [a seminarian] not so much on his profession day but on the days that follow when the glow is gone; when he is just another number; when he feels unfairly treated…when he tries to talk and no one is there to listen!â€�

Similarly, our large family had gone to Cheshire, CT to be with our son, D___, when he took his first vows. We were amazed when our son told us that this was his “wedding day.�

How could we answer this son, whom we had not seen for two years, who was showing himself to be a complete stranger? How could we point out the obvious, that it was not his wedding day — maybe his declaration that he and his intended were going to live together for awhile, but not a nuptial in any sense of the word that we understood it!

That a seminarian — only two years into his journey toward the priesthood, still discerning his vocation, and free to leave — should speak of his first professions as his “wedding dayâ€� was preposterous. As it turned out, what should have been a joyous day of celebration and support for our son disintegrated into one of the worst days of our family’s history. My husband, who was beside himself with frustration about our son’s claim to be married to the Legion, said to me later, “Well, if he’s married, his new wife is demanding, selfish, and self-righteous.â€�

Lost In A Masquerade

On the day of professions in Connecticut, a large crowd of families, like ours, was waiting outside of St. Bridgit Church after the profession ceremony — and waiting outside and waiting. Twenty minutes passed and stretched into almost forty-five minutes. What was taking so long? We had only that one day to spend with our son, one day that was ours with him after two long years of his novitiate.

We learned later that our son, along with all this class of newly-professed was being “briefedâ€� by his superior about what he could and could not do with us — his own parents and siblings! We learned later that D___ was also taking his secret vow to give complete allegiance and never to speak ill of the Legion.

Thus, to our confusion and growing amazement, D___ spent the entire day with us in aloof and dreamy-eyed silence. Throughout the day, he was distant and did not want to talk with us because he was so swept up in the glorious bubble of the Legionary mythology. He dragged us into every church that we passed along the way to pray. When we parted from him that night, our hearts were wounded; we felt angry and cheated. It would be almost another year before we could see him again, as Legionary seminarians are allowed to go home only two times per year on the birthdays of their parents.

Over the years, there were weddings of his siblings and deaths of beloved grandparents; he was not allowed to come home for them. Not even when his father was sick with a life-threatening disease and facing major surgery was he allowed to come home. Over the many years before his departure from the Legion, our natural bonds of affection were used and abused, and it has been a long road to recovery of the love and trust that were so cruelly severed by the years in the Legion. This is not an isolated incident; it is universal in the Legion and part of Legionary policy, although if asked by a parent of a prospective seminarian, it will be denied.

What To Do

What I want to tell every parent whose son is caught, as our son was once caught in the Legion’s web, is this: your love for your son is bigger than the Legion’s power over him. Let this love be freely expressed, despite your wounded heart. As a mother, however, your pleas and nagging have no effect whatsoever; they may even push him deeper into enemy territory.

Accept the fact, mother, that you have absolutely no power to extricate your son by your own best efforts! But your husband, his father does, though it may not be immediate. Here is where the strength of a man’s protection, by his grace as father of the family, can be cast over both the mother and the son. You, as wife, have only to remain loyal to your husband and not shift your loyalties to the Legion and Regnum Christi; eventually, your son will, like the Prodigal Son, come to his senses and return to his father.

In the meantime, it is important that your son not perceive that he has been abandoned and betrayed by his natural father — as he will one day most certainly be betrayed by his adopted father, the Legion. How can your son ever find his way back home, if you should fall into the trap of the Legion and become a part of what your son will one day flee? In short, stay away from every overture of the Legion, and of your son, to be recruited into Regnum Christi or have your other children recruited into the Movement.

And I Will Always Love You!�

A practical way that will make an impression on your son is to claim him, despite his protestations. Arrange this before you see your son and have your husband (not you, his mother — your son needs to hear this from his father) put his hands on your son’s shoulders and look straight into his eyes and say, “My son, I love you. If you want to leave the Legion, I support you and will be there for you. A good and godly life is possible outside of this outfit.â€� He will remember that his father said this, even if he is angry at the time.

When my husband said this to our son, on the weekend of the professions, D___ was blazingly angry; he shot back, a reproach: “How can you say such a thing? I’m married to the Church, to the Legion! What if B_____ (a married brother) wanted to leave his wife? Would you support him in doing so?â€� My husband answered with a strong, firm gentleness that I could never have mustered at that moment: “Whatever he — or you do — you are still and always my son. And I’ll always love you.â€� I really think that this gesture helped D___ when, six years after that far off dreamy-eyed day of his first profession he found himself out — alone, sick, and without funds — on the streets, ousted by the Legion to which he had given so many years of his life. But, thanks be to God, he was and remains OUT!

I’m sorry for my friend’s son, as I am sad for our own son, who continues his long recovery. But, I hold tightly to the threads of Faith and of Love — stronger than death. Our son went through a horrible spiritual death at the hands of unscrupulous men masquerading as men of God. There is JUSTICE and there is a God in heaven — a good and gracious God — not the Legionary “godâ€� who is cruel, treacherous, and glamorous.


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