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

Pope Rewrites Epitaph for Legion of Christ Founder

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, May 3 2010 (IPS) - The Vatican’s decision to appoint a special delegate to run the Legion of Christ and to set up a commission to look into the order after more than a decade of allegations of sexual abuse by its founder has shaken the powerful ultraconservative Catholic order established in Mexico.

On Saturday, the Vatican issued a seven paragraph statement that rewrote the epitaph for the late Mexican priest Marcial Maciel (1920-2008), who founded the Legionaries, referring to his “serious and objectively immoral behaviour” and accusing him of leading a life “devoid of any scruples and authentic sense of religion”.

After meeting Friday Apr. 30 with the five bishops who carried out an eight-month global investigation of the Legion and Maciel, the pope decided that the Vatican would assume leadership of the order, which is active in 22 countries.

The overhaul of the controversial order will include the removal of its current leadership and an examination of its founding constitutions.

“Transparency is essential, and the procedure will be crucial to restructuring the badly damaged image of the institution,” José Suárez, spokesman for the Observatorio Eclesial (Ecclesiastic Observatory), a coalition of religious groups, told IPS.

But the Vatican’s statement made no reference to holding the order accountable for the sexual abuse of numerous boys or to reparations for the victims of Maciel, who headed the order until his death in 2008.

Maciel was accused of abusing a number of young seminarians in the order’s schools in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. He also led a double life, maintaining relationships with at least two women and fathering up to six children, two of whom he allegedly abused as well.

But thanks to the network of strong ties he built with many of the Church’s most influential conservative leaders, and with powerful political and economic elites in Mexico, the United States and other countries, he was never brought to account, despite several inconclusive investigations conducted over the years.

The Legion of Christ, founded in 1941, has 125 churches, more than 150 prep schools and nine universities in 22 countries, as well as nearly 800 priests and 2,500 seminarians. The order’s general headquarters are in Rome, and it has total assets of around 33 billion dollars, according to press reports.

The special Vatican commission will also look into the order’s 70,000-member lay wing, Regnum Christi.

In an April article in The National Catholic Reporter, U.S. investigative reporter Jason Berry wrote that “the charismatic” founder of the Legion of Christ “sent streams of money to Roman curia officials with a calculated end…Maciel was buying support for his group and defence for himself, should his astounding secret life become known.”

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.

Maciel’s key supporters, who provided him with a protective shield, included Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state from 1991 to 2006; Cardinal Eduardo Martínez, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life; and Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the Polish secretary of late Pope John Paul II (1978-2005).

“Catholics see that there is something seriously wrong in the official way of dealing with a scandal too deep for the tears that have been shed by the innocent,” Eugene Cullen Kennedy, emeritus professor of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago wrote in his blog on Monday.

“Catholics should not accept a newly invoked form of transparent hypocrisy” with which the Church leadership is attempting to deal with the “plague” of sex abuse scandals involving priests that have been coming to light.

Although the Vatican suspended Maciel as head of the congregation from 1956 to 1959 because of early allegations of paedophilia, he was found innocent and reinstated. But his reputation finally began to unravel in 1997, when publications in the U.S. and Mexico reported that eight former seminarians had accused him of sexually abusing them years earlier.

Thirteen months after German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was named pope in April 2005, he ordered Maciel to retire and to conduct “a reserved life of prayer and penance, renouncing every public ministry.”

However, Maciel’s victims and their supporters demanded much harsher measures, given the magnitude of the crimes he was accused of.

“It shouldn’t be a question of letting bygones be bygones,” said Suárez. “There have to be reparations for the victims and a mechanism to ensure that this does not happen again.”

In a letter to one of the bishops who carried out the eight-month investigation, former Legionaries called for a public apology, an investigation into the damages caused by the Legion, and reparations for the victims.

In a brief statement issued Sunday, the Legion of Christ accepted the pope’s decision, saying they “embrace his provisions with faith and obedience.”

But there are many unanswered questions, such as whether measures will be taken by Pope Benedict against Church leaders who protected Maciel, like Cardinal Sodano.

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