The Vatican said Pope Benedict XVI had approved the sanctions against the Rev. Marcial Maciel – making it the first major sexual abuse disciplinary case handled by the pope since he took office last year.
Maciel is one of the most prominent Catholic Church officials the Vatican has disciplined for alleged involvement in child sexual abuse. The case is also significant because Maciel was so warmly regarded by Pope John Paul II.
Benedict’s decision to approve the sanctions showed he was not beholden to John Paul’s legacy when it comes to dealing with what he once called the “filth” in the Catholic Church – a widely understood criticism of clerical sex abuse.
Since 1998, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Benedict headed before he became pope, has been investigating allegations by former seminarians that Maciel sexually abused them decades ago.
Nine former seminarians first accused Maciel in 1996 of having abused them when they were boys or teenagers during the 1940s to 1960s; later, other alleged victims came forward.
The Vatican didn’t say whether it found the abuse allegations against Maciel to be true. And it said that because of Maciel’s age – 86 – it decided against mounting a full-fledged church trial against him.
Instead, the Vatican said the congregation had “invited the priest to a reserved life of prayer and repentance, renouncing every public ministry.”
Maciel and the Legionaries have strongly denied the allegations. “Before God and with total clarity of conscience I can categorically state that the accusations brought against me are false,” Maciel said in a 2002 statement. “I never engaged in the sort of repulsive behavior these men accuse me of.”
The case against Maciel has been closely followed by victims of the clerical sex abuse scandal because Maciel in particular, and the Legionaries in general, curried such favor in the Vatican under John Paul.
In January 2005, John Paul hailed Maciel for his “paternal affection and his experience.” A few months earlier, the late pope praised Maciel on the 60th anniversary of his ordination, citing his “intense, generous and fruitful” priestly ministry.
The Vatican statement said that “independent of the person of its founder,” the Holy See recognized with gratitude the work of the Legionaries, which Maciel founded in Mexico City in 1941.
Victims of clerical sex abuse hailed the decision.
“Maciel is the most powerful Catholic official to ever face Vatican sanctions for child sexual abuse,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a U.S. victims’ support group.
While welcoming the move, which was first reported Thursday by the U.S. Catholic newspaper National Catholic Reporter, the group said it hoped the Vatican would go further by removing Maciel from the priesthood altogether.
The Rev. Jim Martin, associate editor of the Jesuit magazine America, said it was hard to overestimate the impact that the sanctions would have on the Legionaries, one of the fastest-growing religious orders in the Catholic Church with some 600 priests and 2,500 seminarians in 20 countries in North and South America, Europe and Australia.
“The distinctive (spirit) of the order comes from the founder,” Martin said. “His life is studied, his words are quoted, his picture and statues are everywhere. Any critique of the founder, especially one that’s so serious, is a huge mark against the order.”
The Vatican investigated Maciel in the 1950s for alleged drug use, trafficking and misuse of funds but not for sexual misconduct. He was suspended from his duties as head of the order, but then reinstated after being cleared of all allegations.
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