by Jason Berry
[New Orleans] To be a Catholic these days is to profess faith in spite of humiliation caused by an epic crisis of sexually abusive clerics. The Los Angeles archdiocese alone faces some 500 civil cases and a criminal grand jury seeking files of more than 200 priests. Despite the scandal, Cardinal Roger Mahony is encouraging the Legion of Christ – whose leader has been trailed by accusations of sexually abusing seminarians – as the religious order seeks to open a school.
“They originally wanted to build in Camarillo, but we suggested Moorepark in Ventura County,” says archdiocesan spokesman Tod Tamberg.
The Legion, which has support of a parents’ group and some area priests, derides the allegations against Father Marcial Maciel Degollado as “disproven.”
But the accusations by nine former Legionaries, which have a history stretching back to 1976, have never been adjudicated by the Vatican. The scandal surrounding Maciel taints the legacy of Pope John Paul II. And the strange dynamics of the order Maciel founded permeate the Legion schools, leaving their own trail of controversy.
In 1976 two priests, a Mexican and a Spaniard, who had left the Legion for the Long Island diocese of Rockville Centre, gave the late Bishop John McGann detailed accounts of Maciel’s abuse. McGann sent a dossier of charges to Rome in keeping with Canon Law. The Vatican acknowledged receiving the allegations, and did nothing. McGann made further attempts on behalf of the two priests, in 1978 and 1989.
Each time the Vatican acknowledged receiving the information – after which, silence.
In the 1990s other men who had left the Legion years earlier began renewing friendships. Nine men, seven Mexicans and two Spaniards, gave on-the-record statements to Gerald Renner and me for a 1997 report in the Hartford Courant. The Vatican response to our queries was nothing, not even “no comment.” That silence was hardly an endorsement of Maciel, who refused to be interviewed, yet asserted his innocence.
In 1998, the papal ambassador to Mexico encouraged the ex-Legionaries to seek justice in Rome. They filed a canonical case at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith accusing Maciel of “absolving” the sins of his victims in confession, a crime under church law that has no statute of limitation.
In late 1999, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who oversees the congregation, aborted the proceeding without explanation.
The Legion portrays Maciel as a victim of false accusations and cites a 1950s Vatican investigation over accusations that he abused drugs, after which he was re-enstated. But the Vatican has never released details of that investigation.
Ratzinger, meanwhile, privately told a Mexican bishop that Maciel’s case was “delicate” because he had done much good for the church. This is a staggering double standard. Were Maciel an American, he would be kicked out of the priesthood under the bishops’ 2002 youth protection charter. In Rome he lives at the Legion seminary, hosting dinners for Vatican luminaries. On trips to Mexico he dodges the news media.
Prep schools were central to Maciel’s strategy in establishing the Legion in Mexico in 1941. He courted wealthy backers in Latin America and Spain, using seminarians to cultivate benefactors with hand-written letters, working the phones on fund drives, even going with priests to pitch potential donors. Commercial use of seminarians is unheard of in orders like Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans.
Maciel’s photograph hangs on the walls in Legion schools. Students adulate him as a hero from Mexico’s era of anti-clerical persecutions. But Maciel was kicked out of two seminaries as a young man. No others would take him, which the official Legion history chalks off to “misunderstandings.” Were it not for an uncle (a bishop who had him privately tutored) Maciel would never have become a priest.
Time marinates a self-image. At a 1992 beatification ceremony in Rome, Maciel told associates: “Don’t start my canonization process until I’ve been dead thirty years.” His mother has been nominated for sainthood. Seminarians are taught that Maciel is a living saint. In Mexico that myth worked for years.
Legionaries take special vows never to speak ill of their superiors and to report on anyone who does — vows that rewarding spying as an act of faith.
ReGAIN, a group of ex-Legionaries and parents who withdrew children from Legion schools, has an information website and an October 16 conference in Atlanta.
The Legion’s two dozen U.S. prep schools are mostly in affluent suburbs and draw support from Regnum Christi, a lay group that studies the writings of Maciel. They call themselves “The Movement” and seek others to join – and give money.
A Regnum Christi memo from St. Louis calls for “a database of basic information on each member and her family….divided into the following categories of information: Apostolic, Formational, Personal, Recruitment, Economy.”
In Atlanta, the principal and three staffers were fired in 2000 from the Legion’s Donnellan school after resisting coercive tactics. The guidance counselor refused to give a priest information that children shared in a therapy setting. “You cannot shove things down people’s throats,” the ex-principal, Angela Naples, reflected later. “They spoke of Maciel like he was right up there with the pope.” The four who were fired filed suit and settled for $375,000.
In Naples, Florida, police detective sergeant Dan Anderson became president of the parents’ club at the start up Legion school. The group clashed with Regnum Christi. “They saw blind faith, untiring devotion to the Movement, secret meetings,” said Anderson, who removed his four children. Parents researched Maciel on the internet and connected with people in other communities who felt burned by the Regum Christi. “The whole facade came tumbling down,” said Anderson.
The Legion has its cultivated hierarchs. Sacramento Bishop William Weigand supports a Legion university plan. A money drive is underway. Atlanta’s Archbishop John Donaghue, to the dismay of some of his own priests, has given the Legion and Regnum Christi near carte-blanche in teaching catechism to Catholic kids who attend public school.
Why would Cardinal Mahony be receptive to the Legion of Christ? Tamberg, the archdiocesan spokesman, called the situation “a state of preliminary conversations.”
Mahony would do well to emulate Bishop James Griffin of Columbus, Ohio. In 2002, Griffin saw conflicts at a parish school as Regnum Christi members grew active. One parent likened The Movement to “a cult.” The bishop, who has degrees in canon and civil law, made what is called “an extraordinary visitation,” to the parish and listened to all sides. Three weeks later he publicly banned Regnum Christi from parish property and the Legion of Christ from any role in his diocese.