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Legionaries founder accused of sex abuse


An extensive investigation by The Hartford Courant, a major daily in Connecticut, revealed last week that Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder and superior general of the Legionaries of Christ, has been accused by former students of molesting them when they were attending the order's schools.

Maciel, who lives in Rome, was praised by Pope John Paul II in 1994 as "an efficacious leader of youth."

Nine men, all allegedly victims, gave the Courant graphic details of their encounters with Maciel. The abuse, they said, involved some 30 boys and young men and extended over at least three decades. In some cases, the men said, Maciel told them he had permission from Pope Pius XII for his illicit acts.

Maciel refused to discuss the allegations with the Courant but, through a spokesman in the United States, strongly denied any illicit sexual activity.

The Legionaries are an international religious order, a "spiritual army" started in Mexico by Maciel in 1941 when he was a 20-year-old theology student. According to the Courant, he was already overseeing the education of young boys.

The conservative order, often described as secretive and wealthy, is one of the fastest growing in the world and enjoys support from the highest officials of the church. The pope presided at the ordination of 60 of the order's priests in 1991. Maciel has accompanied the pope on two trips to North America.

Aggressive recruiting

The Legionaries' aggressive recruiting program targets young men and boys -- in some cases as young as 10 -- for its strict educational programs at dozens of schools in 18 countries, including prep schools, major and minor seminaries, schools for the poor in Mexico and a university in Mexico City. Seminarians number more than 2,000, twice the number of a decade ago.

The Courant's 6,500-word article was written by Gerald Renner, the newspaper's religion writer, and Jason Berry, author of Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children. Berry lives in New Orleans.

The article was based on interviews in Mexico and the United States with 10 men, now in their 50s and 60s, allegedly victims of abuse, who reported being haunted for years by their experiences. In some cases, they wept during the interviews. The Courant reported that most of the nine accusers had provided affidavits to support their allegations. However, one of the 10 men who spoke to the Courant of their abuse later retracted his testimony.

In Maciel's defense, the order's law firm obtained letters from four Mexicans -- two of them employed by the order and a third formerly employed by Maciel's brother -- who said Maciel's accusers were engaged in a conspiracy to discredit him.

Maciel's accusers include a priest, a guidance counselor, a professor, an engineer, a lawyer and a former priest who became a university professor. The men, all but one Mexicans or Mexican-Americans, described themselves as former members of a favored group, known as the "apostolic schoolboys." The abuse allegedly occurred over three decades beginning in the 1940s in Spain and Italy, where boys and young men were taken for schooling, according to the Courant.

After years of silence

The Courant reported that the men came forward after years of silence and two attempts to persuade the Vatican to investigate their allegations. Their silence, which they said reflected fear, repression and the conviction that no one would believe them, was broken last year after the Courant reported that the Legionaries of Christ were buying two nationally-distributed Catholic weeklies, the National Catholic Register and Twin Circle. In that article, the Courant spoke with three men, novices at a seminary in New Castle, N.Y., who said they had fled the school's strict program after officials denied them permission to leave.

According to the Courant, the Legionaries issued a lengthy defense of Maciel. In a 19-page statement, Fr. Owen Kearns of Orange, Conn., U.S. spokesman for the order, said the accusations against the 76-year-old priest were false and derived from "personal vendettas" against him by men who wanted to destroy his reputation.

"Each of these allegations is false," Kearns said. "Father Maciel has never engaged in sexual relations of any sort with any seminarian or novice, nor has he engaged in any of the other improprieties alleged." The statement was released by the Chicago law firm Kirkland and Ellis.

NCR's efforts to obtain a copy of the statement or to speak to Kearns were unsuccessful.

The men making the accusations told the Courant they hoped their stories would call church officials to accountability. Several said they blame neither the Legionaries nor the church for Maciel's misconduct. None is seeking legal relief or financial compensation from the order.

Factors in their decision to talk about their past, the men said, were the increasing openness in the church about sexual abuses by clergy and their revulsion at hearing the pope praise Maciel.

The men also cited the Vatican's lack of response to letters sent in 1978 and 1989 by two priests asking for a new investigation of Maciel.

The Courant reported that the Vatican had investigated Maciel from 1956 to 1958 on allegations of drug addiction and misuse of money, but not of sexual abuse. The Vatican cleared Maciel of any wrongdoing at the time and said physicians in Rome had found no evidence of drug addiction.

The Vatican's main spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, did not respond to repeated inquiries, according to the Courant.

Maciel's accusers told the Courant that, in a typical encounter, a boy would be summoned to Maciel's room, where he would appear to be writhing in pain in his bed. In the first phase, the boy would be asked to rub the priest's stomach to relieve his pain. Before long, he would engage the boy in mutual masturbation.

Two of the accusers are men who helped to establish Maciel's order in the United States.

One of those is Juan Vaca, a 59-year-old former priest who served as president of the Legionaries in the United States for five years in the early 1970s. Vaca, now a guidance counselor in Holbrook, N.Y., told the Courant that the molestation began about two years after he entered a Legionaries' seminary in Mexico at age 10. It led to a "psychosexual" relationship that continued for a dozen years -- a relationship he still struggles to understand, he said.

The abuse occurred at a seminary in Spain, Vaca said, where he was far from his family in Mexico. At one point, Vaca said he had insisted on going to confession following a sexual encounter, prompting Maciel to make the sign of the cross over him, saying "I will give you absolution."

Under canon law, a priest who absolves a partner in a sexual act is considered excommunicated latae sententiae (automatically). The penalty is one of the few in canon law that can be lifted only by the pope or his designated authorities.

Vaca said that when he was sent by Maciel to recruit in Spain in the early 1960s, his orders were to get "the prettiest and smartest kids," the Courant reported.

The other accuser who worked to build the order is Fr. Felix Alarcon, 63, of Venice, Fla. In 1965, Alarcon opened a Legionaries' base in Milford, Conn., the order's first establishment in the United States.

In 1976, Vaca left the order, according to the Courant, after presenting Maciel with a list of 20 victims and a written note saying, "Everything you did contradicts the beliefs of the church and the order." Vaca then became a parish priest in Rockville Centre, Long Island.

Then-Bishop John R. McGann forwarded Vaca's letter to the Vatican, along with other documents, including a letter from Alarcon supporting Vaca's account.

Msgr. John A. Alesandro, a canon lawyer in the Rockville Centre diocese, confirmed that the documents had been sent in 1978 and that the accusations were reiterated in correspondence with Pope John Paul II in 1989, when Vaca asked for permission to leave the priesthood. Vaca's request was granted, but the Vatican's response made no mention of his allegations regarding Maciel, Vaca told the Courant.

Alesandro told the Courant, "It was our duty to get this stuff into the right hands. I don't know why it was not acted on. ... It's a substantive allegation that should have been acted on."

As for Alarcon, he said Maciel had taken advantage of him when he was "very small and very young." Alarcon was interviewed after others named him as one of the victims.

Uncles were bishops

Maciel, a member of a large family that migrated from France to Mexico, often told seminarians stories about his uncle, a general, who fought during the Mexican Civil War, defending the church against its enemies. Many priests were killed in the war, which ended in 1920, and priests were persecuted for years afterward. Maciel also had four uncles who were bishops. One took over Maciel's training after he left two seminaries -- one in Vera Cruz, Mexico, in 1938, and the other a Jesuit seminary in Montezuma, N.M., in 1940, according to the Courant. His uncle ordained him in 1944.

By courting wealthy Mexicans, Maciel was able to raise enough money to begin his religious order in 1941. He established a seminary in Tlalpan, a suburb of Mexico City, in 1948. By the late 1940s, he had expanded the order to Spain.

Priests of Maciel's order took the usual three vows of poverty, obedience and celibacy, but also pledged complete fidelity to the pope and vowed to never speak ill of the order, of Maciel or their other superiors, and to inform on those who did, according to Renner and Berry's report.

The Courant's sources described a culture of "total control," where mail was monitored, telephones were unavailable and students were told to use a leather strap studded with metal on themselves as a way of keeping impure thoughts at bay. Punishments for rule-breakers were harsh.

The men who alleged abuse said they could hear the sounds of students whipping themselves in the seminary at night.

Boys were kept in the order through fear, Maciel's accusers said, learning the phrase "Lost vocation, sure damnation."

Another of Maciel's nine accusers, Arturo Jurado Guzmán, 58, is a member of the faculty at the U.S. Defense Department School of Linguistics in Monterey, Calif. He told Courant reporters that he was 11 when he entered the order and 16 when Maciel summoned him to his room to massage his stomach, asking him to "go lower and lower." Jurado said he submitted to mutual masturbation with Maciel about 40 times after that. Maciel found a new victim, Jurado said, when he refused to engage in anal intercourse with Maciel.

Jurado was among those who told the Courant that Maciel had assured him that he had obtained a "personal dispensation" from Pope Pius XII to engage in such sexual activities because of his illness and pain.

Another victim, Alejandro Espinosa Alcalá, also said Maciel had told him that the pope had given his permission to use boys in that way. He told the Courant that Maciel had said the activities were "morally correct" because the younger man was acting only as a "technical nurse." Espinosa, 59, and a rancher in Mexico, said Maciel would sometimes bring a third boy to his bed.

Another accuser, Saul Barrales Arellano, 62, said he had repeatedly refused Maciel's entreaties to "manipulate him sexually." Barrales, who has taught for many years in Catholic schools in Mexico, said he would sometimes stretch out along Maciel's doorway to keep other youth away.

Miguel Díaz Riviera, the accuser who later retracted his testimony to the Courant, said Maciel had a "divided personality" that allowed him to separate his priestly life from the activities in his bedroom.

Another former victim, José de J. Barba Martin, recalled a time when the priest molested him, got dressed and walked calmly with him to a luncheon, where the priest offered a blessing.

Díaz told the Courant that Maciel claimed he needed either "a specific drug" or "masturbation" to relieve the pain from an illness "that caused him to retain sperm in his testicles."

Although Maciel was cleared by the Vatican of drug addiction, each of his accusers said he was indeed addicted to painkillers. Jurado said he had been sent for morphine several times and had given him the drug intravenously.

During the investigation in the 1950s -- a two-year period during which Maciel was suspended as head of the order -- the men told the Courant that they had been too nervous or intimidated to cooperate. After Maciel was exonerated by the Vatican, they felt certain no one would believe their stories.

Barba recalls that he was asked by one of the investigators to describe Maciel and replied, "He is a saint," repeating, he said, what the seminarians had heard for years. Barba said he "retreated" under further questioning, too fearful to describe any of his experiences.

At the time, seminarians were told "enemies of God" were out to get Maciel, Vaca told the Courant. He said he denied awareness of any flaws in Maciel, including drug abuse, and offered the investigators only praise.

According to Renner and Berry's account, another man who alleges he was a victim, José Antonio Pérez Olvera, a lawyer in Mexico City, said Maciel once lured him into a sexual encounter by saying he needed a sample of the boy's semen for a physician in Madrid. Pérez said Maciel told him that, with the semen, the physician would be able to help Pérez's brother, Fernando Pérez Olvera, also a student at the seminary. Maciel told José Antonio Pérez that his brother "masturbated frequently," and that it was "urgent to take him away from this sin." José Antonio Pérez said Maciel had put the semen in a flask and told him to receive the Eucharist and "never tell anyone of this heroic act."

Resisted advances

Fernando Pérez, now 62 and an engineer in Mexico, said he, in fact, had resisted Maciel's advances when he was 14 and began breaking rules at the seminary, hoping to be expelled.

One of Maciel's accusers was on his deathbed when he described being abused, dictating a statement as he was dying from a stroke in 1995. The man, Juan Manuel Fernández Amenabar, a native of Spain, had been a priest of Maciel's order who served as president of its Northern Anahuac University in Mexico City during the early 1980s. He left the priesthood and his position in 1984.

Among its U.S. operations, the order has a major presence in the Northeast. In Connecticut, it operates a headquarters in Orange, a minor seminary in Cheshire and a publishing center in Hamden. In New York, the order operates a novitiate on a 100-acre estate in New Castle, a family center in Rye and a retreat center in Mount Kisco. Legionaries also operate boarding schools for girls in Warwick and Greenville, R.I., and a lay formation center in Wakefield for members of an organization called Regnum Christi.

Related groups include a support network for former members led by a priest in Washington.

Of the order's 350 priests, about 40 are stationed in the United States and Canada.

In late February, the order bought from IBM a 264-acre office complex in Mount Pleasant, N.Y. The order said the site will become a new training center for priests. The purchase price was undisclosed, but the property is assessed at $40 million.

According to the Courant, the order also sponsors food distribution programs and "promotes urban and rural development in Latin America."

The full account by Gerald Renner and Jason Berry can be found on the Hartford Courant. The article is no longer available on-line.

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 1997