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RELIGION: Founder of Legionaries Dies without Ever Going to Trial

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Jan 31 2008 (IPS) - Marcial Maciel, the founder of the influential conservative Catholic order Legionaries of Christ, “took with him to the grave secrets and guilt for which he never asked forgiveness,” said activist Joaquín Aguilar, referring to the numerous accusations of pedophilia faced by the Mexican priest, who died in the United States.

“It’s a pity that he was never held accountable by the justice system,” Aguilar, the Mexico director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), told IPS.

In a statement on its web site Thursday, the Legionaries of Christ reported that Maciel, who was born in the Mexican state of Michoacán in 1920, died in the United States, but did not provide further details.

Considered a saint by his followers and a child molester by his accusers, Maciel founded the Legionaries of Christ in 1941. Today the order comprises 600 priests and nearly 3,000 seminarians, and runs schools in a number of countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Spain and Venezuela.

Maciel was accused by former seminarians in the order’s schools of abusing them in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and the Vatican suspended him as head of the congregation from 1956 to 1958 because of the allegations. However, he was eventually declared innocent and reinstated.

In May 2006, after another investigation, the priest was finally ordered to retire by Pope Benedict XVI, and asked to conduct “a reserved life of prayer and penance, renouncing every public ministry,” although the Vatican made no public statement as to whether the accusations of sexual abuse of minors were found to be credible.

“It was a weak sanction. What Maciel deserved was a requirement that he make a full confession and ask for forgiveness,” said Aguilar.

The SNAP activist is himself a former victim of pedophilia, and accuses Mexican Archbishop Norberto Rivera of protecting the priest who allegedly abused him (who has no relation to the Legionaries).

“It is a real pity that Maciel has died without being punished, and that the Legionaries have never admitted the crimes committed by their founder,” said Aguilar, whose organisation works mainly in the United States and Canada, where it has brought – and won – a number of cases against priests accused of sexually abusing minors since the scandal broke in 2002.

The statement issued by the Legionaries of Christ, one of the most conservative Catholic orders along with Opus Dei, says that “By the will of Father Maciel, the funeral takes place in an atmosphere of prayer, in a simple and private manner.”

The Legionaries also “express their deep gratitude to all those who wish to unite in prayer for the eternal repose of his soul.

“Certainly, although we all knew this moment had to come, on a human level it still causes us deep sadness. His departure hurts us in the deepest part of our soul. On the other hand, Nuestro Padre always spoke to us of hope, and when he talked about death, he always talked about the Resurrection. And so, we are not going to stay only in the sadness of the moment or in the tears of the heart,” the open letter adds.

The first accusations against Maciel, who was highly respected by Pope John Paul II, date back to the 1950s, when former seminarians, including teachers, a former priest and a lawyer, said they had been abused by the priest at different times over the course of a period spanning several decades.

When the abuse occurred, the boys were around 12 years old and were studying in Legionary of Christ schools in Spain and Italy.

One of them, Alejandro Espinosa, published a book, “The Legionary”, in 2003, in which he offered details, including names and dates, of the abuse.

The accusers never went to court in Mexico, because the statute of limitations had run out.

After the Vatican decided to ask Maciel to retire, the Legionaries of Christ merely stated that they respected the decision with “a profound spirit of obedience and faith,” pointing out that “our venerated father” had been the target of numerous accusations throughout his life, and that he maintained that he was innocent and would follow the example of Jesus Christ and not defend himself in any way.

Aguilar said the impunity that Maciel enjoyed until his death should not ever be repeated, “no matter how important” the priest in question.

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