Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Religion

RELIGION-MEXICO: Legion of Christ Scandal Escalates

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Mar 5 2010 (IPS) - A new scandal has increased the pressure on the conservative religious order Legion of Christ, one of the most influential in the Catholic Church, to compensate the victims of alleged sexual abuse by its founder, Mexican priest Marcial Maciel, and carry out internal reforms.

Maciel (1920-2008) led a double life, maintaining relationships with at least two women and fathering up to six children. And according to new allegations, he sexually abused one of his biological sons and an adopted son.

But despite allegations that he abused numerous young seminarians in the order’s schools in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and several investigations conducted over the years, he was never held accountable for any case of sex abuse.

On Wednesday, a Mexican woman, Blanca Lara, and her three sons Omar, Raúl and Christian González, were interviewed by journalist Carmen Aristegui, head of the Noticias MVS radio programme.

Lara said she was 19 when she met Maciel, who was then 57, and that for 20 years she had a relationship with the priest, who went by the name “Raúl Rivas” and told her he was a private detective and worked for the CIA, which explained why he travelled so much.

“Maciel’s pathology was shared by his own religious order,” an expert on religion, Bernardo Barranco, told IPS. “He contaminated the congregation. They not only concealed his double life, but tolerated his out-of-control behaviour. They worshiped him, extolling the false image of a person who never existed and covering up for an abominable monster.”

The latest scandal came just a few days before the final report is due from an in-depth investigation of the Legion of Christ ordered by the Vatican and carried out by five bishop “visitators” since last July.

On Pope Benedict’s orders, the bishops are investigating the finances and internal workings of the organisation, which was built on Maciel’s network of strong ties with many of the Church’s most powerful conservative leaders, and is suspected of influence peddling.

In November 2009, Lara and her sons met with Mexican Bishop Ricardo Watty, one of the five visitators conducting the inquiry, and told him about their relationship with Maciel.

The latest scandal about Maciel has coincided with new allegations of widespread sexual abuse of boys in seminaries and boarding schools in Germany and the Netherlands that have recently emerged, cranking up the pressure on Pope Benedict, formerly German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

After founding the Legion of Christ in 1941, Maciel, who was born into a wealthy ranching family in Mexico, carefully built up the order through ties with the political and economic elites of this country, making the Legion a powerful symbol of the most conservative wing of the Roman Catholic Church.

And although the Vatican suspended him as head of the congregation from 1956 to 1958 because of early allegations of paedophilia, he was found innocent and reinstated.

However, the myth finally began to unravel in 1997, when the Hartford Courant daily newspaper in the eastern U.S. state of Connecticut and the Mexican magazine Contenido reported that eight former seminarians had accused Maciel of sexually abusing them years earlier.

“Despite testimony by 30 ex-Legionaries abused by Maciel, the Vatican failed to specify his moral crimes. To mollify his followers, the Vatican praised the order…and the Legion then cast Maciel as falsely accused,” wrote U.S. journalist Jason Berry in a September 2009 article for the Hartford Courant.

Berry and his late colleague Gerald Renner wrote the 2004 book “Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II”, which gave rise to the award-winning documentary “Vows of Silence” on Father Maciel and the Legion of Christ.

Despite investigations of the allegations against Maciel in the mid- to late-1950s and again between 1998 and 2005, and indications that the Vatican was aware of what the order itself acknowledged as the “inappropriate” actions of its founder, he enjoyed the protection of Pope John Paul II.

But Ratzinger, who was named pope in 2005, ordered Maciel to retire in 2006, and to conduct “a reserved life of prayer and penance, renouncing every public ministry.”

However, he did not take any stronger measures against the founder of the Legion or against the order itself.

The Legion of Christ has more than 150 prep schools and nine universities in 22 countries, as well as nearly 800 priests and over 1,300 seminarians.

Mexican priest Álvaro Corcuera, superior general of the Legion since 2005, and other leaders of the order have expressed regret for Maciel’s behaviour.

In late February, the secretary general of the Legion of Christ, Father Evaristo Sada, asked for forgiveness “from those who were affected by our founder because of the immoral acts of his personal life.”

But the Legion has refused to pay compensation to the victims.

“In recent years, the Legionaries of Christ have gradually come to know, with surprise and great sorrow, hidden aspects of the life of Father Maciel…We renew our request for forgiveness from the affected people for all of the suffering this has caused and for the ensuing scandal,” the Legion said in a statement released Thursday, after Lara and her sons went public with their story.

According to the order, Raúl González asked the Legion for access to a six million dollar trust fund that his father had promised to leave his family at a bank in the Bahamas, as well as 20 million dollars in compensation for their suffering.

The Legion said González told them he would keep silent about Maciel if he and his family received the money, and added that it had refused the demand.

Since September, a group of Legionaries concerned about the scandal have pushed for measures to make the order more transparent.

On their blog, the group Transparencia Legionarios stated that “the recent news about the founder of the Legionaries of Christ and other Legionary priests prompts us to entertain certain legitimate and morally acceptable doubts about the congregation, its members and its practices as responsible educators of our children. We are thus demanding an accurate, swift response.”

The group has called for monthly reports on the expenses and income of the Legion’s schools, as well as the CVs of the teachers.

The five bishop visitators, who have carried out their investigation for the Vatican in a number of different countries, will reportedly recommend the dismissal of the Legion’s leaders, the naming of an episcopal commissioner, and a post-mortem sentence for Maciel.

But Barranco and Berry go even further.

According to Barranco, “Maciel sinned, but he also committed monstrous sexual crimes that should be paid in the terms marked by society’s justice system. Crimes for which the statute of limitations has expired, the lawyers will say. But society is demanding divine justice.”

For his part, Berry wrote that the bishops “should hire forensic accountants to probe (the Legion’s) finances…The Vatican should order the Legion to pay settlements to Maciel’s victims and his children….And, then, His Holiness should shut down this sick operation forever.”

In a letter to Watty, former Legionaries called for a public apology, an investigation into the damages caused by the Legion, and reparations for the victims.

Another Mexican woman who had a relationship with Maciel lives in Spain with her daughter, who the order has publicly acknowledged as the daughter of the Legion’s founder. They live in comfort in a luxury apartment after apparently reaching an agreement with the order to keep quiet.

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