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Cover story

Maciel accusers seek accountability

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

In the lore of the Legionaries of Christ, Marcial Maciel Degollado started his religious order in Mexico on Jan. 3, 1941, when he gathered 13 young boys around him to teach them theology.

He was only 20 years old and had not been ordained yet. In fact he had been ejected from two seminaries for what the official history calls “misunderstandings” about his desire to start a religious order. A seminary in Vera Cruz, Mexico, dismissed Maciel in 1938. A Jesuit-run seminary in Montezuma, N.M., dismissed him in 1940.

One of Maciel’s uncles, Bishop Francesco Gonzalez Arias of Cuernavaca, Mexico, oversaw his training and ordained him a priest on Nov. 26, 1944. He was 24, a young age for a priest, especially one who had failed to finish two seminaries.

On Feb. 23, 1997, in an article in The Hartford Courant, a darker version emerged, tainting the official version.

The newspaper, based in Hartford, Conn., reported that nine professional men alleged publicly that Maciel had molested them when they were young men, as young as 12, in Legion seminaries in Spain and Italy during the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Maciel’s accusers included three professors, a priest, a teacher, an engineer, a rancher and a lawyer.

One of the professors, a former priest who died in 1995, left behind an accusatory deathbed statement.

The accusers said they had decided to go public because Pope John Paul II had not responded to letters from two priests sent through church channels in 1978 and again in 1989 seeking an investigation. In fact, they said, it was after the pope praised Maciel in 1994 as an “efficacious guide to youth” that they decided to make their accusations public.

Maciel, who is based in Rome, declined to be interviewed, but denied any wrongdoing through a law firm. The Legion said Maciel was the victim of a plot by disgruntled former members of the order to depose him.

In a letter to the editor of The Courant published on March 2, 1997, Maciel denied the accusations as “defamations and falsities with no foundation whatsoever” and said he was praying for his accusers.

None of Maciel’s accusers filed legal action or sought financial compensation from the Legionaries or the Catholic church. Many of them remain loyal Catholics and said they were not blaming the religious order or the Catholic church. They said all they seek is accountability by church authorities for what they said was Maciel’s sexual misconduct.

The Vatican has maintained silence on the issue.

As head of a religious order with ministries in 20 countries, Maciel reports directly to the Holy See and only the Holy See can order an investigation into the allegations.

But an answer of sorts from the Vatican was forthcoming. In late 1997 Pope John Paul II appointed Maciel one of his special delegates to the Synod for America, which involved a select group of 250 church leaders from North and South America in talks about evangelization, economic justice and church cooperation in the new millennium.

“To me, this is their answer without saying that they don’t believe us,” said Juan Vaca, one of the accusers and a former priest who was president of the Legionaries in the United States until he quit the order in 1976. Today he is a college guidance counselor on Long Island.

Fr. Owen Kearns, a spokesman for the Legion and publisher of its newspaper, the National Catholic Register, said at the time that Maciel’s “appointment has brought great joy to the tens of thousands of lay people who, with the Legionaries of Christ, spend their lives daily in evangelization.”

(Editor’s note: The story of the accusations against Fr. Maciel in The Hartford Courant in 1997 was written by Gerald Renner, who recently retired from that newspaper, and Jason Berry, author of the ground-breaking 1992 book, Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children. Berry includes the story of Fr. Maciel in a newly revised paperback edition of his book that was published this year by the University of Illinois Press.)

National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2000