A Priest’s Legacy Survives, and Divides, in Mexico

The Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, Legionaries of Christ founder, with John Paul II. This month, the Vatican took control of the order.

When her father, an industrialist from Monterrey and a big supporter of Father Maciel’s Legionaries of Christ, died in 1991, the priest began working his magic on her mother and the eight Garza children. The family’s financial devotion yielded benefits that included more than one private meeting with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.

The Vatican’s decision to take control of the powerful religious order and to label Father Maciel “devoid of scruples and of genuine religious sentiment” because of his long history of sexual abuse is causing particular soul-searching in Mexico, where many of the country’s upper crust helped the Mexican-born priest build his religious empire.

It is in Mexico where Father Maciel founded the Legion in 1941 and courted a Who’s Who of the country’s well-heeled entrepreneurs and rising politicians. But most of his victims were also from Mexico and it was in this country that he fathered several children. Criticism of Father Maciel is fiercest in Mexico, although even after his public shaming, he still has supporters.

Father Maciel, who died in 2008, created a vast network of private schools and universities across Mexico for the children of the elite, which helped bring in money for his movement’s worldwide expansion. There were philanthropic efforts as well, like 23 Helping Hand schools for poor Mexican children. With scandal tarnishing the Legion, some insiders are concerned that the empire might implode and the funds dry up.

José Luis Damián Zúñiga, a member of the Legion’s lay affiliate, Regnum Christi, acknowledged that the scandals were testing the faith of some members. “Donations will be more difficult to obtain, and explanations will be required as to how the money will be spent once it’s received,” said Mr. Damián, who vowed to stick with the order.

It is not clear what changes will be made to the leadership or to the order, which reports worldwide membership of 800 priests and 2,500 seminarians as well as more than 70,000 lay members.

Anabel Mellado, who raises money for the Legion’s foundations, said she believed its charitable work would continue in Mexico because so many prominent Mexicans were Legion members who felt shamed by the founder’s actions and wanted to salvage the order.

The directors for the Legion’s charitable wing include executives of some of Mexico’s largest corporations, including the cement multinational Cemex; Copamex, a large paper producer; and Banco Compartamos, the country’s largest microfinance group. Benefactors include some of Mexico’s top tycoons, including Ms. Garza’s brother, Dionisio Garza Medina, who recently stepped down as the chief executive of the industrial conglomerate Alfa; and Carlos Slim, the telecommunications magnate and investor in The New York Times.

Mr. Slim’s relationship with Father Maciel and the Legionaries goes back decades and he continues to donate to the group’s charitable work, said his spokesman and son-in-law, Arturo Elías Ayub. Mr. Slim, now the world’s richest man, has donated a “good amount” of money to the Legion’s network of low-cost universities and plans to continue giving, Mr. Elías said. “We like the way the Legionaries educate,” he said.

Mr. Slim appeared publicly with Father Maciel as late as 2004, long after the first allegations surfaced.

The power that the Legionaries wield through their allies became evident in 1997, when a small Mexico City television station began investigating the evidence against Father Maciel. Javier Moreno Valle, who owned the channel then, said that the Legionaries refused to comment for the program but, unsuccessfully, lobbied to keep the story off the air. “They started pressing through every channel they could,” he said.

Roberto Servitje, part of the powerful family that controls Grupo Bimbo, a giant baked goods multinational, called for an advertising boycott of the station. He was seconded by Alfonso Romo, then a wealthy businessman from Monterrey with interests in cigarettes and insurance. A friend of Mr. Moreno Valle, an executive from Televisa, the country’s main broadcaster, also called.

The Servitje family declined to comment on the episode.

Father Maciel himself worked his political contacts to try to save his reputation. Mr. Moreno Valle received a call from the communications minister, Carlos Ruiz Sacristán, who asked him not to broadcast the program. Father Maciel also spoke to President Ernesto Zedillo’s private secretary, Liébano Sáenz, who called Mr. Moreno Valle and asked him to cancel the program.

Under the presidency of Vicente Fox, which began in 2000 and ended in 2006, the Legionaries’ more covert political influence burst into full view. His wife, Marta Sahagún, is a supporter of the order and the couple married last year in a religious ceremony presided over by a Legionary priest, eight years after they married in a civil ceremony.

One of Father Maciel’s legacies will be the Mexican families he divided.

Anxious that a relative might storm out of the house, Ms. Garza largely avoids speaking of the Legion around her family. “We talk about the weather,” said Ms. Garza, 43, the youngest of the eight children and one of those in the family who, despite going to Legion schools as a girl, broke with the group.

When she does talk about the Legion, she pulls no punches, even though her brother is one of the highest officials in the order in Rome.

“The damage they did to families is huge,” said Ms. Garza, who grew up in Monterrey, a conservative city that was a gold mine for Father Maciel. “They didn’t just take people’s money. They took away their children to live lives in the Legion and they controlled them.”

Juan Vaca, a former Legion priest and one of Father Maciel’s victims who now lives in the United States, said he was estranged from his sister for years because she, a consecrated Legion member, did not believe his allegations. “She thought I was making false accusations against this holy man,” he said. “Now, she knows everything I said was the truth. She appreciates my courage.”

Juan Carlos, who asked that his last name not be printed because his relatives work in the order, provided a glimpse of the scandal’s impact on his upper middle class family.

He attended the Cumbres Institute in Mexico City, the first of what is now a national network of schools for the sons of Mexico’s elite. Two brothers joined the order as lay workers and continue to work for it, although one is having second thoughts. His mother began to attend regular meetings for Legionary women and met Father Maciel’s sister there, whom she revered, he said.

His sons have gone to Cumbres, and he does not intend to pull out the remaining one. “I am convinced that there is a lot more to the Legionaries than Father Maciel,” he said. “They have done great things and helped many people.”

But he was relieved when a school retreat for his son was canceled after the revelations about Father Maciel. “They brainwash you in those retreats,” he said, adding later, “They ask for money to fix the school pool, but they raise enough to build 15 pools.”

Antonio Betancourt contributed reporting

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