The Vatican on Saturday ordered the overhaul of one of the Catholic Church’s largest and most influential organizations following an investigation into decades of sexual abuse by the group’s founder and systematic efforts to cover it up.
Mexican-born Father Marcial Maciel engaged in “very serious and objectively immoral behavior,” the Vatican said -- including fathering at least one child and sexually molesting boys and seminarians. The abuse dates to the 1950s and continued into the 1990s, years in which Maciel led a double life, protected by silence and obedience and his ability to sideline his accusers.
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A headline on an earlier version of this article indicated that the overhaul of the Legion of Christ applied only to Mexico. It applies worldwide.
Maciel, who died in 2008 at 87, founded the ultra-conservative Legion of Christ order in Mexico in 1941. Today, the Legionaries, as they are known, operate in nearly 40 countries with 800 priests, 2,600 seminarians and a lay branch, Regnum Christi, with more than 75,000 members. In Mexico, the group controls a vast network of schools and universities that preach traditional Catholic values.
In a lengthy and sternly worded statement, the Vatican said Saturday that Pope Benedict XVI will appoint a special envoy and a commission to oversee the “purification” of the order and the “re-definition” of its secretive, militaristic culture. Actions taken by the current Legion leadership will be scrutinized; but no specific sanctions were mentioned — amid widespread suspicion that at least some of the current leaders must have been aware of Maciel’s sins.
Saturday’s announcement follows an investigation in which a team of bishops fanned out across the globe on Benedict’s command. The process is called an “apostolic visitation,” and in this case the bishops interviewed more than 1,000 Legionaries and reviewed scores of documents. They reported to the Holy See Friday and Saturday, with Benedict sitting in on one of the briefings.
How the Vatican handled the Legion case has been watched closely as sexual abuse scandals erupt across Europe and other parts of the world. Benedict and other church leaders have been accused by victims and their advocates of failing to act with enough vigor to stop abuse and punish offending clergy.
Allegations had dogged Maciel for decades. But he was able to easily deflect them, branding his accusers as slandering liars and receiving unflagging support from the church hierarchy. Among his most devoted supporters was Pope John Paul II who admired Maciel because of his conservative fealty to doctrine and his ability to raise money and recruit priests. His influence was tied in part in his ability to ingratiate himself with Mexico’s millionaire elite, who contributed copiously to his cause.
Maciel “skillfully managed to build up an alibi to gain the trust, confidence and surrounding silence, and strengthen his role as charismatic founder,” the Vatican said. Living “a life devoid of scruples and of genuine religious feeling,” the statement continued, Maciel “created around himself a defense mechanism that made him untouchable for a long time.”
Those who “doubted his upright conduct” were disgraced or expelled, the Vatican said, under a misguided notion of wanting to protect the good works of the organization.
Benedict’s decision to restructure the Legion is far short of disbanding the organization, as some critics had demanded. The Vatican noted the “religious zeal” of rank-and-file Legionaries as something to be preserved.
A statement on the Legionaries’ website Saturday said they “thank the Holy Father and embrace his provisions with faith and obedience.”
The order’s spokesman in Mexico, Javier Bravo, did not return phone calls on Saturday. In March, he told The Times that the order would respect whatever decision the Holy See handed down. He acknowledged the disgrace that Maciel had become, saying the late priest “will have to be reconsidered as an instrument, rather than a model.”
Jose Barba, one of Maciel’s earliest and most vocal victims, said Saturday that the Vatican decision was important but inadequate because it did not address the church hierarchy’s role in facilitating Maciel.
“They never say that all of these crimes were possible because of a lack of supervision,” Barba told The Times.
The Vatican, in the statement, acknowledges the “hardships” faced by Maciel’s accusers through the years — when they were ostracized or ridiculed — and commends their “courage and perseverance to demand the truth.” But, Barba said, it does not recognize that it was the church hierarchy itself that often participated in discrediting the accusers.
“We were demanding truth, and justice,” he said.
Barba was one of a handful of Mexican seminary students who have come forward about having been sexually attacked by Maciel in the 1950s and ‘60s. They attempted to force Rome to launch an investigation and canonical trial of the priest in late 1990. But they got nowhere, thanks to Maciel’s many well-placed supporters.
Only in 2006 did Benedict, a year into his papacy, sanction Maciel by ordering he refrain from all priestly duties. He was by then 85.