Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RELIGION: Legionaries of Christ Founder Falls from Grace

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, May 19 2006 (IPS) - It took the Catholic Church more than half a century to acknowledge the numerous allegations of sexual abuse against the leader of a conservative order founded in Mexico, the Legionaries of Christ. But the Vatican, which has frequently praised Father Marcial Maciel over the years, finally decided to punish him.

However, he will not be brought to justice by the courts.

Maciel, who for decades has denied charges that he molested former students for the priesthood in the seminaries run by the order, “deserves criminal punishment, rather than this mild decision by the Church,” Joaquín Aguilar, Mexico director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), told IPS.

On Friday, the Vatican reported that it had “invited” the 86-year-old Maciel to “a life reserved to prayer and penitence, renouncing any public ministry.” The decision, which was approved by Pope Benedict, was taken after a Church carried out a probe into the accusations voiced by a number of former seminarians.

Although Maciel will not undergo a church trial, he can no longer celebrate mass or give speeches or interviews.

This is the first time in the modern history of the Church that it has disciplined the founder of an order.

The first allegations against Maciel, who was highly respected by Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, date back to the 1950s. Although the Vatican suspended the priest as head of the congregation from 1956 until 1958 as a result of the accusations, he was eventually declared innocent and reinstated.

In 1997, eight former students spoke out once again, although they did not turn to the courts in Mexico because the statute of limitations had run out. They accused Maciel of sexually abusing them when they were adolescents, in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. The Church launched a new investigation in late 2004.

Shortly afterwards, in 2005, Maciel stepped down as head of the Legionaries, ostensibly on grounds of age and health. But it has now become clear that he was asked to do so by the Vatican, which already had evidence that he had engaged in sexual abuse of teenage seminarians.

The probe ended in Friday’s decision by the Vatican, which was criticised by activists as overly lax.

“The sexual abuser Maciel continues to enjoy impunity, which is unacceptable. The Church has always protected him,” said SNAP’s Aguilar.

Maciel accepted the Vatican decision “with faith, complete serenity and tranquility of conscience, knowing that it is a new cross that God, the Father of Mercy, has allowed him to suffer,” said a statement by the Legionaries of Christ.

For his part, Maciel said “I can categorically state that the accusations brought against me are false. I never engaged in the sort of repulsive behaviour these men accuse me of.”

According to the Legionaries, Maciel “has received during his life a great number of accusations.”

Although the Legionaries believe Maciel is innocent of all charges, they said they “accept and will accept always the directives of the Holy See with profound spirit of obedience and faith.”

Aguilar said “it is incredible that the Legionaries continue to consider Maciel a saint, when it is clear that he sexually abused minors.”

The Legionaries of Christ was founded in the early 1940s by Maciel, when he was a young seminarian, and recognised by the Church in 1948.

According to the order’s web site, “Preaching and extending Christ’s kingdom constitute the ideal which inspires, motivates, directs and shapes the apostolic goals of the Legion of Christ.”

Like the ultra-conservative Catholic organisation Opus Dei, the Legionaries of Christ enjoyed the strong support of Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005.

The Legionaries, who largely draw in young men from well-off families, have 600 priests and 2,500 seminarians, and run a broad network of universities and religious institutions in 25 countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Mexico and Venezuela, in Latin America, as well as Ireland, Italy and Spain.

A number of members hold high-level positions in the business world and in government, like Mexican First Lady Marta Sahagún and several other close associates of President Vicente Fox.

“Although Maciel’s crimes have been acknowledged by the Vatican, we must not celebrate that fact if this pedophile is never brought to justice,” said Aguilar.

Aguilar’s organisation, SNAP, which is active in the United States and Canada, began to operate in Mexico in April.

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