“Would You Believe” produced a program showed in early March on the Legionaries of Christ, an Order founded mid 20th century and run by the notorious Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado – a pedophile and drug addict.
As the Legionaries of Christ, known as ‘the Legion’, was setting up in Ireland in the late 1950s, the founder of this new religious order, Fr Marcial Maciel was under investigation by the Vatican for acts of sodomy with boys, fraud and drug addiction. Despite what the Vatican knew about Maciel, he was allowed to establish a congregation in Ireland and recruit young, enthusiastic Irish men to build the Legion empire from a minority Spanish-speaking Congregation into a powerful international movement within the Catholic Church.
Archbishop John Charles McQuaid facilitated the establishment of the Legion in Ireland, but concluded in a letter in 1970 that “there is a creepiness and secrecy about this whole group that is a constant worry to me.” McQuaid’s successor, Archbishop Ryan banned them from recruiting in Dublin because of their ” lack of freedom of conscience, alienation from parents and undue pressure.” Despite the ban, two young Dublin lads secretly consecrated their lives to the movement just six months after they left school. They were told to tell no one, not even their parents.
It took over six decades for the Vatican to intervene, finally condemning Maciel in 2010 as a criminal and a fraud. The Vatican also recognised that the conduct of Fr Maciel gave rise to “serious consequences in the life and structure of the Legion such as to require a process of profound re-evaluation.” This month the Legionaries of Christ conclude their extraordinary general chapter which is the culmination of a three year consultation process and marks the beginning of a new way forward. So, what went wrong, what needs to change and can the Legion change it?
Maciel personally tried to recruit the broadcaster Mike Murphy, who remembers: “He came to the house and he tried to get me to join. I’d love to say I had my suspicions, but I didn’t instinctively warm to what they were doing.” Mike’s two brothers and his sister were convinced, however, and enthusiastically enrolled.
Genevieve Kineke believes that the Legion “. is a construct that Maciel put in place specifically to con people out of their money and to con families out of their children.” Genevieve was recruited into the movement in the US in the 1990s.
“In the Legion, we were always told that a lie is not a lie if the person you are talking to doesn’t have the right to know the truth. Even bishops were lied to.” says Glen Favereau, who spent 14 years in the Congregation. Fr Andreas Shöggl, the Legion’s European Superior, says that Glenn is almost quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Sometimes people don’t have a right to the truth and you don’t have an obligation to tell the truth, but these are very exceptional cases.” Paul Lennon, an ex Legionary priest, believes that for the Legion “Truth is just a commodity and they learned that from Fr Maciel.”
In this program Mick Peelo traces the first Legionary who set foot in Ireland in 1956. Now a lay man in California, Federico Dominguez tells the real story about why he came to Ireland. He was Maciel’s former Secretary and a whistleblower who was banished to Ireland in 1956 by Maciel, who called him “a traitor to the Legion,” after Dominguez passed on information about Maciel’s crimes and corruption to the Vatican.
The first Irish recruits, Jack Keogh and Paul Lennon, talk about what attracted them to this new movement and how, for over 20 years, they collaborated in a culture of secrecy and deception. Isaac Chute from Cork, who joined in the early 1980s, speaks about how his personality was changed by the Legion. “When I joined the Legionaries of Christ I was a very normal happy-go-lucky kid and, over time, they kind of moulded me into something that I wasn’t.”
One of the first Irish recruits, Fr Owen Kearns, who publicly vilified Maciel’s victims and accusers in the late 1990s, talks openly about this and the impact on him when he discovered the truth about the founder. “I cried.I lost 7 pounds in 7 days.” He explains why he still remains a Legionary today. “God did use a seriously flawed criminal, a sociopath, an abuser and through him set up this, such that when we met it, we knew this is from God.” Genevieve Kineke disagrees: . “.That’s not how the Holy Spirit works. God doesn’t use pedophiles in order to build congregations.”
In 2008, over 200 documents relating to the Legionaries of Christ were leaked from the Vatican. This programme looks forensically at these documents in the context of what was happening with the Legion in Ireland over the years. The documents show that efforts were made by senior Cardinals in the Vatican in the 50s and 60s to get rid of Maciel, but they were prevented from acting because of “interventions by eminent figures.”
The Vatican’s seal of approval enabled Maciel to continue to operate for over sixty years unimpeded and with impunity. Five successive popes publicly endorsed Maciel, despite repeated warnings. The leaked documents point to three popes in particular, Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, whose combination of inertia and support not only allowed Maciel to continue, but elevated him to “Poster Boy” status in the Catholic world. “I didn’t question it, because why would I question something that John Paul the Second was praising? ” says Marita de Palma, who was a consecrated lay women in the movement. She was eventually expelled from the movement for discussing its practices with her mother and attempted suicide.
Some of the Irish who joined the Legion and those they recruited believe it is a cult within the Catholic Church. Disillusioned former members believe that the problems run so deep that the Legion cannot be fixed. But the Vatican and the Legion believe there is hope. Fr Schöggl: ” If you see some cult-like characteristics, it is not because the Legion is a cult, but because there have been several circumstances, several weaknesses, deficiencies that made us act in a way that was not correct and (we have to) identify them and get rid of them.”