In Mexico, Catholic order is haunted by past
He hobnobbed with Mexico’s rich and famous, cut lucrative real estate deals and was rumored to travel on occasion with a briefcase full of cash. He fathered at least one child, molested seminarians and boys and is said to have boasted that he had the pope’s permission to get massages from young nuns.
And all the while the conservative priest was building one of the most influential organizations in the Roman Catholic Church.
Two years after the death of the Rev. Marcial Maciel, a Mexico native, scandals continue to unfold: Just the other day in Mexico City, two brothers came forward, claiming tearfully that not only was Maciel their father, he had also sexually abused them.
Buffeted by the string of revelations, Maciel’s powerful Legion of Christ is fighting for its survival in Rome, the headquarters of the church. But here in Mexico, where the Legion has long-standing ties with the ruling class and an expansive network of elite schools, the organization remains strong.
Rather than the desertions that some branches of the Legion have experienced in the United States and elsewhere, student enrollment in Legionary schools in Mexico grew by 6% to 8% last year, spokesman Javier Bravo said.
The order’s assets are estimated by some to be worth $20 billion.
“Obviously there has been a lot of suffering and surprise from what we have learned about the founder,” Bravo said. “Obviously Father Maciel was a great part of our founding period. But he will have to be reconsidered as an instrument rather than a model.”
A few days after Bravo spoke to The Times, the Legionaries issued their most comprehensive apology to date for Maciel’s “reprehensible” behavior. “Though it causes us consternation,” the statement says, “we have to say that these acts did take place.”
As the Catholic Church is rocked by scandals about abusive priests and the failure of its hierarchy to confront them, Maciel in many ways embodies the insidiousness of the problem.
Maciel was dogged for years by allegations that he sexually molested young men studying to be priests, had affairs with women and was a drug addict. He evaded sanction thanks in large part to the privileged status granted him by the late Pope John Paul II. Only in 2006 did John Paul’s successor, Benedict XVI, discipline Maciel by ordering him to stop functioning as a priest; by then, Maciel was 85.
Maciel was popular at the Vatican because the Legion was one of the fastest growing orders in the Catholic Church, able to produce wealth and recruit priests at a time of declining memberships and severe shortages in the clergy -- and because it espoused the conservative brand of Catholicism that recent popes have favored.
Today the Legionaries, as they are known, operate in nearly 40 countries with 800 priests, 2,600 seminarians and a lay branch called Regnum Christi (“Christ’s Kingdom”) that has more than 75,000 members.
Though blessed by John Paul, the Legion had detractors the world over who, quite apart from the abuse allegations, criticized the secretive group’s cult-like practices. Seminarians were cut off from their families, their mail routinely intercepted; barred from criticizing Maciel and instructed to report anyone who did; and made to adhere to a military-style discipline. A cult of personality developed around Maciel, revered as a hero destined for sainthood.
In Mexico, the key to Maciel’s success was his ability to ingratiate himself with the country’s top entrepreneurs and richest families. Charismatic, persuasive and good-looking in his younger days, Maciel amassed so much money from his benefactors that the Legionaries for Christ are sometimes ridiculed as the Millionaires for Christ.
“He was a wizard, really, a wizard,” said Jose Barba, a Mexican historian and one of the first former seminarians to accuse Maciel of abusing him.
Maciel founded the Legion in 1941 and it took off in the decades that followed thanks to the times. Mexico was emerging from its anti-clerical revolutionary fervor. Maciel befriended an emerging cadre of well-positioned politicians, who tipped him to future development projects aimed at expanding Mexico City. He bought land before prices went up, using it to build sprawling university campuses.
An important boost came after the Second Vatican Council, the landmark papal review in the early 1960s that resolved, among other goals, to promote a preference for the poor. Orders such as the Jesuits moved to the left, to the chagrin of the traditional elite.
Enter Maciel. He told Mexico’s wealthy that God loved them more than the poor, just what they wanted to hear.
One of his earliest and wealthiest benefactors was Flora Barragon de Garza, whose husband made his millions in paper and cardboard.
“It was incredible how my mother would open her checkbook to Father Maciel: She had a blind faith in him,” daughter Flora Garza told Proceso magazine in 2008. “She always gave him whatever he wanted. And in the end, he ended up abandoning her . . . after she had given him something like $50 million.”
Maciel built a network of separate boys and girls elementary and high schools (and, later, universities) that taught conservative Catholicism and strict morals and became the epitome of prestige. The first school in Mexico City, Cumbres (“The Heights”), was built in 1954. Among those providing financing was Carlos Slim, recently ranked by Forbes Magazine as the world’s richest man.
Maciel repeatedly put himself at John Paul’s side, publicized pictures of himself receiving papal blessings and was prominent in John Paul’s two successful trips to Mexico in the 1990s, taking credit for turning out millions to see him. As late as 1994, John Paul praised Maciel as a Jesus-like model for youth.
“He used to tell us that he had special papal permission for the young nuns to give him massages,” Barba said.
In the late 1990s, Barba and seven other former seminarians came forward to describe in great detail the sexual abuse they said they suffered in the 1950s. Still, it was nearly a decade before Maciel would be disciplined. And only upon his death in 2008 did the Legion, under Vatican pressure, acknowledge that Maciel had a daughter, a woman now in her 20s, who lives in Spain.
Benedict last year ordered a rare investigation, known as an apostolic visitation, of all Legion sites and institutions. Five bishops dispersed all over the world concluded their research March 15 and reported back to the Vatican. In addition to abuse, the investigators are examining the Legionaries’ finances amid reports of money-laundering and accounts from ex-members that Maciel often traveled with a leather briefcase full of cash.
Experts in Rome predict the entire Legionary leadership may be purged to salvage the order. Bravo, the spokesman, said the Legionaries cooperated with the investigation and will abide by the results.
On March 3, an alleged mistress appeared on a leading Mexican radio program with her sons -- two by Maciel, she said, and a third whom the priest had adopted. Blanca Estela Lara said she met Maciel more than 30 years ago, when she was 19 and he 56. He told her he was a CIA agent to explain his long absences.
Her son Raul Gonzalez described to interviewer Carmen Aristegui the eight years of abuse that he and younger brother Christian endured, starting with the first incident: “I was 7, lying in bed with him like any child that age. He pulled down my underwear and tried to rape me. . . . He made us masturbate him and took pictures of us doing it.”
Gonzalez later acknowledged that he went public because the Legion refused to pay him $26 million to keep quiet, money he said he deserved because Maciel had promised to leave him a trust fund.
The Legionaries have to walk a very fine line as they attempt to contain the damage. They must distance themselves from Maciel without discrediting the very essence of their order. His picture, once omnipresent in schools and seminaries, has come down. A paean to him on the group’s website has been trimmed.
The Legion has lost just one school contract in Mexico since the scandals broke, and enrollment nationwide is up. At Cumbres in Mexico City, parents met with administrators to say they intend to remain “alert,” but most are sticking with the program.
“We really didn’t want all that has transpired to affect the education of our children,” said a father with two sons in the school who asked not to be identified to protect their privacy. “We wanted to be sure that the tuition money really was being invested in the school and that the priests and professors interacting with our kids really have the moral and ethical values” that the administration had promised.
But, he added, “One thing is certain. You cannot preach morality, spirituality and religion with a bad example.”