Pope Benedict XVI appointed a special envoy to run the Legionaries of Christ, a rich and powerful order within the Catholic Church. With a statement issued Saturday, the Vatican finally acknowledged the serious problems within the religious order. The Mexican priest who founded it in 1941, Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, molested boys and seminarians for decades. He also fathered three children with two different women.
The Vatican statement summarized the findings of five bishops who investigated the allegations against Maciel. The Vatican said:
The very serious and objectively immoral behavior of Father Maciel, as incontrovertible evidence has confirmed, sometimes resulted in actual crimes, and manifests a life devoid of scruples and of genuine religious sentiment. The great majority of Legionaries were unaware of this life, above all because of the system of relationships built by Father Maciel, who had skillfully managed to build up alibis, to gain the trust, the confidence and the silence of those around him, and to strengthen his role as a charismatic founder.
Not infrequently, the lamentable discrediting and dismissal of whoever doubted his behavior was upright, as well as the misguided conviction of those who did not want to harm the good that the Legion was doing, created around him a defense mechanism that made him untouchable for a long time, making it very difficult to know his real life.
In other words, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, who counted several popes among his best friends, was a sociopath.
50 years of exploitation
As early as 1956, the Vatican investigated charges against Maciel of drug use and sexual abuse of boys and seminarians. He was suspended for three years, but reinstated in 1959.
Complaints were filed against Maciel periodically, including one in 1997. That investigation was quashed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now, of course, the pope. According to Jason Berry, a reporter who has researched the case thoroughly, Ratzinger was pressured by Pope John Paul II’s secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who staunchly defended Maciel.
Why? Well, Maciel’s Legionaries of Christ was “known for militant spirituality, papal loyalty and a $650 million budget,” Berry wrote. The order also delivered vocations—men who wanted to be priests—when interest in the priesthood was declining in most of the developed world.
Here’s what Jason Berry posted a month ago on Politics Daily:
In 1997, nine ex-Legionaries opened their lives for the Hartford Courant, telling me and Gerald Renner how Maciel had sexually abused them in seminary. Asserting his innocence, Maciel refused to be interviewed. The Vatican was utterly silent on our questions about victim accusations against Maciel that went through church channels to Paul VI in 1976, John Paul II in 1978 and 1989. In 1998, the men filed a prosecution request in Ratzinger’s tribunal. Sodano pressured Ratzinger to halt the case. Maciel and Sodano were close friends for years. As secretary of state, Sodano was effectively John Paul’s prime minister. Finally, with the pope dying in 2004, Ratzinger broke ranks with Sodano and ordered an investigation. In 2005, Sodano’s office stated, falsely, that the investigation was over. In 2006, Benedict banished Maciel to “a life of prayer and penitence.”
Jason Berry wrote a book and a documentary about the case, both called Vows of Silence. The title reflects the fact that, until recently, Legion members took a vow not to criticize their superiors, including Maciel. The preview for the film is haunting. See it here:
Money instead of morality
This case is an appalling example of money and politics overriding morality in the Catholic Church. Here is part of an Associated Press article on the controversy published last week:
Edward Peters, a canon lawyer who teaches at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, has said he wonders whether the disgraced priest created the order “to assure himself of ample access to sexual targets and unaccountable funds.”
The Legion now claims a membership of more than 800 priests and 2,500 seminarians in 22 countries, along with 70,000 members in its lay arm, Regnum Christi. The movement’s global network includes charities, Catholic news outlets, seminaries for young boys, K-12 schools, and universities in Mexico, Italy, and elsewhere. Among its U.S. operations is the University of Sacramento in California, a seminary in Cheshire, Conn., and schools in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Georgia and Texas.
The order has never publicized its finances, but its worldwide assets are estimated to have grown into the billions of dollars.
The case against Maciel has long been seen as emblematic of Vatican inaction on abuse complaints specifically under Pope John Paul II.
John Paul championed the group for its loyalty, traditionalism and success recruiting men to religious life at a time when seminary enrollment generally was dismal. The late pontiff did not waver in his public support after nine ex-Legionaries filed a canon law case at the Vatican against Maciel in 1998, and after broad news coverage of the many claims against the priest.
Too little, too late
I spent eight years in Catholic school. My cousin was abused by a priest when he was young. He got a settlement, which he blew partying. He is now a heroin addict.
The Vatican is acting, but as in the abuse scandals in the U.S., Ireland and Germany, the action is too little, too late. The Vatican has blamed the entire scandal on a rogue priest, without mentioning the lack of official Church response—at best, a blind eye, at worst, a cover-up.
Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado was shuffled off to a “life of penitence” in 2006. He was not defrocked. He was not prosecuted. And when he died in 2008, the Legionaires of Christ organization stated that he “went to heaven.”
Some critics believe that the entire Legionaires of Christ organization should be shut down. The people who Maciel groomed for leadership are still there. But the pope isn’t doing that—he’s sent his envoy to turn things around. After all, I’m sure the Church doesn’t want to part with all that money.
In The Betrayal Bond, author Patrick J. Carnes states that the worst type of abuse is spiritual abuse. That’s been going on in the Catholic Church for decades, and it doesn’t look like the hierarchy really wants to make amends.