The Rev. Marcial Maciel, the Mexican founder of an ultraconservative Catholic order who later became the highest-ranking priest sanctioned by the Vatican for sexual abuse, has died. He was 87.
Members of the Legion of Christ said Maciel died Wednesday of natural causes in Houston, where he had been living with other priests in a group home.
“In 87 years of life, Father Maciel dedicated his energies to fulfill the mission God entrusted in him to continue the evangelizing mission of the church,” according to a statement from the order.
Maciel founded the Legion of Christ in 1941 and saw it grow in influence, with schools, seminaries and thousands of lay followers in 22 countries. The group’s traditionalist bent and fierce loyalty to the papacy made him a favorite of Pope John Paul II. Critics charged that Vatican officials protected Maciel against a series of abuse allegations for decades.
In May 2006, a year after Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican punished Maciel after an internal investigation into allegations that he had abused “more than 20 and less than 100 victims,” including seminarians and boys in his care.
Maciel repeatedly denied the charges. Vatican officials did not say Maciel committed the crimes he was accused of but ordered him to refrain from public ministries and adopt a “life of prayer and penitence.” They said his advanced age and frail health prevented him from being prosecuted under church law.
“He will soon face divine justice,” said Saul Barrales Arrellano, a former seminarian and Mexico City resident who accused Maciel of abuse. “He escaped down the easy road. . . . He never had the humility to recognize that he was wrong.”
Maciel was born in 1920 in the town of Cotija, in the southern Mexican state of Michoacan. He was the nephew of Rafael Guizar y Valencia, the archbishop of Veracruz and a leader of the Catholic resistance to the secular, reformist governments produced by the Mexican Revolution.
His uncle, Jesus Degollado Guizar, was the last commander in chief of the Cristero army, an armed Catholic resistance group.
“I sometimes saw my mother with a rifle in her hands to defend us in case of an attack on the house,” Maciel told the Catholic news agency Zenith in a 2003 interview.
The sight of members of the Cristero army hanged by government troops deepened his faith, he said.
“In my simple logic of a child I would tell myself that they had given their lives for Christ. . . . I too wanted to give my life for him.”
At 15, he began his studies for the priesthood at a clandestine seminary operated by Guizar y Valencia. Not long afterward, while praying, he felt a calling to create “a group of priests who would travel the world without rest, transmitting the love of Jesus Christ,” according to his official biography.
Maciel founded the legion in Mexico City in 1941. In 1946, he traveled with his first group of followers to Spain, later meeting Pope Pius XII and founding a seminary in Rome.
The legion founded preparatory schools around the world, including two dozen in the United States.
The sense of persecution and secrecy that shaped Maciel’s youth could be seen in the organization he led.
Legion members took a vow never to speak ill of Maciel or their superiors and to report any member who did.
Jose Barba, a Mexico City professor, who said he was assaulted by Maciel in 1955, wrote a 2002 essay in which he described the legion’s secretive culture: “If we had been less innocent and docile, we might have understood the dark motive behind those rules of silence and isolation.”
Allegations of misconduct by Maciel date to the 1950s, when he was suspended from the priesthood during a church investigation. He was eventually reinstated.
New charges were leveled against Maciel in 1976, with a Spanish priest and a Mexican priest giving detailed accounts of alleged abuse when they were teenage seminarians in Spain and Rome.
Later, eight men accused Maciel of sodomizing them when they were students under the priest’s supervision from the mid-1940s to the early 1960s. Some said they were as young as 10 when Maciel abused them.
Church officials acknowledged receiving the allegations, but they languished in the Vatican bureaucracy for years. Defenders of Maciel said he was being targeted for attacks by opponents of his conservative ideology.
According to Jason Berry, the author of “Vows of Silence,” a book about Maciel and pedophilia in the church, Maciel was charged in 1998 with “absolving the sins” of his victims in confession, a violation of church law with no statute of limitation.
But in 1999, Ratzinger, then a cardinal and prefect of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ordered the investigation closed.
Five years later, with more people coming forward to claim they were abused by Maciel, Ratzinger ordered a new investigation opened.
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.