An investigation into the sexual abuse allegations against a high-ranking priest of the Roman Catholic Church has been reopened, seven years after the formal complaint was first filed with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, according to people familiar with the case.
Ratzinger’s office ordered the case against the Rev. Marcial Maciel reopened in December, around the time there was growing speculation Ratzinger was a leading candidate to be the next pope. In fact, a Vatican investigator began taking sworn statements from the alleged victims just two weeks ago in New York, the day Pope John Paul II died, according to sources close to the case.
The men who brought the allegations against Maciel had thought their case was dead, having heard nothing but silence in the seven years since they brought the allegations to the attention of Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.
“They knelt and kissed his ring, filing these charges in his tribunal, and after that it was simply stuffed, it was shelved,” said Jason Berry, co-author with Gerald Renner of a book on the case, “Vows of Silence.”
“This pope is at a crossroads. He has to resolve the Maciel case or it will stalk him like a shadow in the sun.”
The charges against Maciel, the founder of a well-connected and well-financed order called the Legion of Christ, a conservative sect of the Catholic Church, date back to the 1950s. Eight men allege that Maciel sexually abused them as young seminarians in Rome, something Maciel has always strongly denied.
Juan Vaca, now a college professor in New York, told ABC News in 2002 that he reluctantly brought the charges as a way to get over the trauma he says he suffered.
“I was the one who called them from their bedrooms to go to see Maciel,” he said. “In some instances, two were together with him, myself and another one.”
The men making the allegations have been told they cannot talk about the case now that it has been reopened.
Maciel, now 84, resigned as head of the legion in January. But as recently as late last year, he was praised by Pope John Paul II for his “intense, generous and fruitful priestly ministry” during the 60th anniversary celebration of Maciel’s ordination.
Ratzinger repeatedly refused to discuss what happened to the Maciel case, and when ABC News attempted to ask him about the allegations outside the Vatican three years ago, he became upset and slapped the hand of the ABC News correspondent on scene.
“You come to me when the moment is given,” Ratzinger said. “Not yet.”
‘Temptation Is Natural, Even for the Priest’
As head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger was put in charge of dealing with the church’s worldwide sexual abuse scandal. But he was at first slow to act and downplayed the scandal as part of a campaign to discredit the church.
“In the United States, there is constant news on this topic, but less than 1 percent of priests are guilty of acts of this type,” Ratzinger said in a rare interview in 2002. “The constant presence of these news items does not correspond to the objectivity of the information nor to the statistical objectivity of the facts. Therefore, one comes to the conclusion that it is intentional, manipulated, that there is a desire to discredit the church.”
Ratzinger was also surprisingly forgiving of priests guilty of sexual abuse.
“Never will it end,” he said. “Temptation is natural, even for the priest. So we have to accept that.”
Berry said that Ratzinger made grave mistakes in his treatment of the Catholic church’s sexual abuse scandal.
“He made a series of terrible blunders in the 1990s and well into 2002,” Berry said. “He made statements that were inaccurate and terribly misleading.”
But some, including Berry, see the reopened Maciel case as a hopeful sign.
“If he removes Maciel, he makes a statement that he is serious about a crackdown on this world abuse scandal,” Berry said of Ratzinger. “If he doesn’t remove Maciel, then the pope himself is part of the problem.”
Rhonda Schwartz, Avni Patel, and Jessica Wang contributed to this report.