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Sex-related case blocked in Vatican


Without explanation, the Vatican has halted a canon law investigation of one of the most powerful priests in Rome, accused by nine men of sexually abusing them years ago as young seminarians.

The allegations focus on the actions of Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the 81-year old leader of the Legion of Christ, a wealthy religious order known for its theological conservatism and loyalty to the pope. Maciel has been praised by Pope John Paul II as “an efficacious guide to youth.”

The men say Maciel first abused them when they were young boys or teenagers between the ages of 10 and 16, sometimes telling them he had permission from Pope Pius XII to engage in sexual acts with them in order to gain relief from pain related to an unspecified stomach ailment.

To many, the case against Maciel is important because it tests the Vatican’s resolve to pursue charges related to sexual misconduct at the highest levels of the church. The story of the accusers’ case, brought before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, opens a rare lens on the Vatican bureaucracy’s response to a “delicate case” involving a priest who enjoys Vatican favor.

Maciel and the Legion have repeatedly said the allegations are unfounded. Maciel has accused the nine men, all ex-Legionaries, of a conspiracy to defame him.

The accusers -- seven Mexicans and two Spaniards -- tried for many years to reach Pope John Paul II with information on Maciel, a Mexican national who founded the Legion in the 1940s. Letters by two of the men, sent to John Paul in 1978, and again in 1989, both by diplomatic pouch, brought no reply.

On Feb. 23, 1997, the group went public with their accusations in The Hartford Courant, a major newspaper in Connecticut, where the Legion has its U.S. headquarters. The men include Fr. Felix Alarcon, a retired priest in good standing in Madrid; Juan Vaca, a psychology professor in New York; Arturo Jurado, a professor at the U.S. Defense Languages School in Monterrey, Calif; and in Mexico, Jose Barba, a Harvard-trained scholar of Latin American studies; Jose Antonio Perez, a lawyer; Alejandro Espinosa, a rancher; Fernando Perez, an engineer; and Saul Barrales, a school teacher. A ninth accuser, Juan Manuel Fernandez Amenabar, a former priest and university president, left a statement of alleged abuse and gave accounts to several witnesses before his death in 1995.

The Vatican made no response to the public accusations. The following year, according to the accusers, the papal nuncio in Mexico City encouraged the men to try another approach: to bring a case against Maciel under the church’s Code of Canon Law.

Assisted by a Mexican priest experienced as a canon lawyer, they filed a motion in the Vatican, accusing Maciel of violating church law by hearing the confession and granting absolution -- forgiveness -- to those he had sexually abused. Canon 1378 calls for penalties against a priest who violates the sacrament of penance by granting absolution to victims or accomplices of his own sexual misconduct. The penalty is excommunication. Judgment in such an offense is reserved to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The alleged abuse could not form the basis of the canonical complaint because the statue of limitation for bringing such a charge under church law has long since expired.

Within this chronicle also lies the story of two Mexican priests who put their careers on the line to help men they believed were traumatized by Maciel.

As a result, the two priests lost their positions, the apparent victims of an institutional backlash.

“We wanted to give testimony, “ said Dr. Jose de J. Barba Martin, the leader of the ex-Legion group, a Harvard-trained professor of Latin American studies at Instituto Tecnological Autonomio de Mexico, in Mexico City.

“The pope has apologized to the Jews for the sins of the church. Maciel, for us, is an issue of moral justice.”

The Rome-based Legion, with 480 priests and 2,500 seminarians, is active in 20 countries on four continents. The order specializes in education. It operates schools in Latin America, Europe and the United States, including a minor seminary in Cheshire, Conn. Its influence is expanded through a web of affiliated organizations. Foremost is Regnum Christi, an organization for laity. Maciel’s defenders see him as a catalyst in a church strengthening its orthodox bearings in an age of moral relativism. Pope John Paul II and other Catholic leaders have praised the Legion as a hopeful sign of church renewal, a model of the “new evangelization.”

A history of allegations

The allegations against Maciel stretch back more than two decades, though the lore about the Legion’s founder goes back several more decades, to Jan. 3, 1941, when he allegedly gathered 13 young boys around him to teach them theology. At the time, Maciel was 20 and had been ejected from two seminaries for what the official history describes as “misunderstandings” about his desire to start a religious order. One of Maciel’s uncles, Bishop Francesco Gonzalez Arias of Cuernavaca, Mexico, oversaw his theological training and ordained him a priest in 1944.

The first known document sent to Pope John Paul II accusing Maciel of sexual abuse was a 1978 letter written by Fr. Juan Vaca, who had been ordained in 1969 and who directed the Legion’s U.S. headquarters from 1971 to 1976.

Vaca had been recruited into the Legion by Maciel in Mexico in 1947, when he was 10 years old. Two years later Maciel accompanied the boy to the newly established Legion seminary in the northern province of Santander, Spain.

Maciel began abusing him at that time, Vaca says, beginning a psychosexual relationship that he contends he endured for years, into adulthood.

In 1976, Vaca quit the Legion and joined the diocesan clergy in Rockville Centre on Long Island, N.Y. He said he was despondent and consumed by guilt over his relationship with Maciel.

Vaca recalls having negative feelings about the relationship with Maciel from the start. He said he remembers a conversation with Maciel soon after the relationship began.

“I didn’t feel right,” Vaca said. “I wanted to go to confession. He told me, ‘There is nothing wrong. You don’t have to go to confession.’ ” According to Vaca, he pressed Maciel again about his feelings of guilt. Maciel said, “Here. I will give you absolution” and made the sign of the cross.

Several of Maciel’s other accusers have written and spoken of how Maciel had given them absolution in confession after he had sexually abused them.

In 1978 Vaca showed Rockville Centre Bishop John R. McGann an explosive letter he had written to Maciel in 1976 to explain why he was quitting the Legion. The 12-page letter, which Vaca said he hand-delivered to the Legion founder in Mexico City, recounted what he called “13 years of terrible anguish and confusion for me.”

“Everything you did contradicts the beliefs of the church and the order,” Vaca wrote. “How many innumerable times did you wake me in the middle of the night and had me with you, abusing my innocence. Nights of absolute fear; so many nights of lost sleep, that on more than one occasion placed my own psychological health in jeopardy.”

Officials of the Rockville Centre diocese sent Vaca’s letter to the pope through the Vatican Embassy in Washington. They included a corroborating letter from another former Legionary priest named Felix Alarcon, who said that Maciel had sexually abused him as a seminarian, too.

Alarcon, a native of Spain, who set up the first Legion base in the United States, had quit the Legion in 1966 and had become a priest of Rockville Centre. A few years later, McGann released him to the Venice, Fla., diocese to minister to Hispanics in Naples, Fla. Last year Alarcon retired as a priest in good standing and is living in Madrid.

The Rockville Centre diocese received a confirmation receipt from the Vatican for the letters. However, Vaca and Alarcon say they were never contacted by Rome.

In 1989, Vaca tried again. In a seven-page petition requesting that he be released from his vow of celibacy, he wrote that he “was not properly trained” to carry out priestly responsibilities because he had entered the seminary at age 10 and then had been subjected to years of sexual and psychological abuse by Maciel.

The Vatican did not respond to Vaca’s allegations against the Legion founder. But on the basis of his letter, he received a papal dispensation from his priestly vows. Married in a civil ceremony, Vaca later had his marriage blessed by the church. Vaca teaches psychology at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. He and his wife have one child.

Jose Barba, another of the accusers, left the Legion seminary in Rome in 1962. After several years of teaching in Mexico, he earned a master’s in romance languages from Tufts University and a doctorate in Latin American studies at Harvard. In 1980 he returned to Mexico and established an academic career at Instituto Tecnologica Autonomio de Mexico. His career flourished but, he said, the traumatic memories of Maciel refused to fade away.

In the early 1990s, with the American media reporting on cases of clergy sex abuse, Barba and other former Legion classmates began communicating with one another. In December 1994, they saw full-page newspaper ads in Mexico City celebrating Maciel’s half-century as a priest. He was pictured with John Paul II and praised by the pope as an “efficacious guide to youth.”

Media coverage of Maciel’s travels with the pope had also been eating at the men. After unsuccessful attempts to reach church officials, they went public in 1997, granting interviews to The Hartford Courant. Following publication, the allegations against Maciel were covered in Mexican and Italian media.

Maciel refused to be interviewed but denied the allegations.

“I wish to state that in all cases they are defamations and falsities with no foundation whatsoever, since during the years these men were in the Legion never in any way did I commit those acts against them,” Maciel wrote in a Feb. 28, 1997, letter to the Courant. “I do not know what has led them to make these totally false accusations, 20, 30 and 40 years after leaving the congregation. I am all the more surprised since I still have letters from some of them well into the 1970s in which they express their gratitude and our mutual friendship.”

Maciel’s defenders point out that he was the object of an extensive canonical investigation from 1957 to 1959, three of the years when the alleged abuse is said to have occurred. The investigation was triggered by complaints about Maciel’s leadership, which the Legion says were unrelated to the sex abuse charges.

Maciel was suspended as leader of the order during this time and every member of the Legionaries was afforded an opportunity to testify against him, the Legion says.

The Legionaries provided to NCR a copy of a letter they said had been written by a Belgian Franciscan tapped by the Vatican to carry out the investigation. The letter, dated Dec. 12, 1996, expresses incredulity about the allegations, given that Maciel’s accusers had said nothing during the investigation four decades ago. The Franciscan, who later became Bishop Polidoro Vlieberghe of Santiago, Chile, is quoted as writing, “At no point in our extensive and searching interviews about the character and deeds of Father Maciel did a single allegation of sexual impropriety ever surface.”

A copy of the same letter along with another undated document attributed to the bishop was also provided to the Courant in 1997 and has been offered in defense of Maciel to media in Mexico.

But the authenticity of both documents is in dispute. Two of Maciel’s accusers were so suspicious of the documents that they met with Van Vlieberghe and several of his aides in Santiago last January. Van Vlieberghe, his lawyer and an aide said the bishops’ signature on the letter and document were forgeries, according to Jose Barba, the Mexico City professor, and Arturo Jurado, a professor at the U. S. Defense Department’s Language Institute. The bishops’ assistants also pointed out that the bishop, 94, was gravely ill in the hospital on Dec. 12, 1996, and had been convalescing all that month, they said.

But the bishops’ aides said they would not attest to the forgeries publicly because they wanted nothing to do with the controversy, Barba and Jurado said. However, the bishop’s aides said they would be willing to answer a formal church inquiry on the legitimacy of the documents.

Meanwhile, Maciel’s accusers have filed a civil action in a Santiago court to have a judge determine whether the letters are real or fake.

Members pledge loyalty

After the Vatican’s investigation of Maciel in the 1950s was completed, Maciel was confirmed as superior of the Legionaries on Feb. 6, 1959.

In recent years, the accusers have expressed guilt for not reporting Maciel during the 1950s-era investigation. At that time, however, sexual abuse was a taboo subject, they note. Some also said that Legion of Christ members pledge loyalty to Maciel and the order, so they faced a violation of their oath if they gave a negative report, risking expulsion from the seminary.

“We all lied during the apostolic visitation in order to save him to such an extent our world had become small and our options had been shortened,” Alarcon wrote in a letter to a colleague after the 1997 news reports.

“My heaviest sorrow, with its roots in the iron discipline,” continued Alarcon, “was the spiritual and psychological torture of not being able to talk about all this with anyone. … The dreadful spiritual distortion which was presented to us as if it were the plan of God, being so opposite to it, the brainwash, and the powerful cursing of anyone who could try to dare to think by himself.”

Shaped by a Latin culture that revered powerful men, the seminarians felt sympathy for Maciel, whom they had addressed as “Nuestro Padre” (Our Father) and had been taught to revere him as a living saint. “We were in terrible conflict. We were afraid,” Barba said.

Legionary sources have accused the nine men of attempting to “frame” Maciel with their accusations. They point to four Mexican laymen -- two who work for the order in Mexico and one who had worked for Maciel’s brother -- who say the accusers tried to enlist them in a scheme to lodge false reports.

The Legionary sources also point out that one accuser, Miguel Diaz Rivera, 62, of Oaxaca in south central Mexico, later recanted. He swore an affidavit against Maciel, then said that he had been encouraged by former Legionaries to make false allegations. A professor and former Legionary priest, Diaz now denies knowledge of sexual misconduct by Maciel.

None of the other accusations has been withdrawn.

The Vatican refused to make any comment at all to the Courant or to the Mexican media when it did follow-up stories in 1997. Although the pope later appointed Maciel to a synod of bishops, the Vatican has never made a formal statement on the allegations or on Maciel’s countercharge of a conspiracy against him.

Church law was decisive

A tall man with dark hair and sturdy build, Fr. Antonio Roqueñi, one of the priests who became involved in the case against Maciel, looks younger than his 67 years. A lawyer’s son who grew up in one of Mexico City’s oldest neighborhoods near the Zocolo, or city plaza, he studied at Instituto Patrio, a Jesuit elementary school, and followed an upper-middle-class path through law school. In 1958, he felt a calling to the priesthood.

Roqueñi studied canon law at the Pontifical Angelicum in Rome on a scholarship provided by Opus Dei, the controversial religious movement that, like the Legion, enjoys the favor of Pope John Paul II. The idea of church law, says Roqueñi, “was a decisive element in my vocation as a priest.” Ordained in 1963, he spent eight years in Madrid as an Opus Dei university chaplain. In 1977 he returned to Mexico City to work as a canonist.

“I don’t share the criticisms of Opus Dei,” he says bluntly. “I left because the archbishop of Mexico invited me to work in the ecclesiastical tribunal. This is the work I had gone to Rome to learn. In Opus Dei I didn’t have that kind of job. It was a personal decision. I entered Opus Dei freely and left freely.”

He worked at the tribunal for more than 20 years, focusing on three major canonical areas: marriage annulments, priests’ issues, and “delicts,” or crimes by priests.

Even before he read a newspaper account about Maciel’s alleged misdeeds, Roqueñi had personal knowledge of a man who claimed he was a victim of the Legion founder’s abuse. This was Juan Manuel Fernandez Amenabar, a former Legion priest who had been the president of Mexico City’s Northern Anahuac, a university operated by the Legion. Roqueñi had met Fernandez years earlier as a witness in a marriage annulment.

In 1984, Fernandez resigned his university presidency, left the Legion and quit the priesthood. To friends, he spoke of years of conflict with Maciel, stemming from sexual abuse as a seminarian. Fernandez left Mexico City for San Diego, married, separated and eventually returned to Mexico City. In 1991, after suffering a stroke, he hobbled into the city’s Spanish Hospital, barely able to speak.

Fernandez, who is described as a teacher beloved by his students, was now alienated from the faith and disillusioned. In the hospital friends urged him to speak with a spiritual adviser. Into his life came the soothing, white-bearded presence of Fr. Alberto Athié.

Athié, a skilled mediator, served as key adviser on social justice issues to the Mexican bishops. He was executive secretary of the Bishops’ Commission on Reconciliation and Peace in Chiapas, Mexico, where Indians were in revolt against the government. He was also vice president of Caritas, the bishops’ charity in Mexico. But, he said, his encounter with Fernandez, and his efforts to advance the case against Maciel, among other things, would lead to his marginalization by the hierarchy and prompt him to resign his positions.

According to Athié, Fernandez refused to speak to him at first, but Athié persisted in his visits. Sharing meals, the men became friends. Athié told NCR that Fernandez related a history of sexual abuse under Maciel. He reported that Maciel was addicted to drugs and would send him as a youth to hospitals and pharmacies to obtain morphine. Several other Legionaries made similar statements about Maciel’s addiction to pain-killing drugs in the 1997 Hartford Courant report.

In a response to the Courant story, the Legion said this charge had been investigated and debunked during the 1950s-era investigation.

“Three of the most prestigious physicians in Rome made separate examinations of Father Maciel, including a complete battery of tests, which established that ‘there was not even the slightest sign which might indicate an actual chemical dependency, or, more specifically, a toxic state induced by morphine or barbiturate-related drugs,’ ” their statement read.

The point was also addressed in the letter attributed to Van Vlieberghe. “That charge was specifically disproven when Father Maciel subjected himself to a battery of medical tests that disproved any kind of dependency or addiction to drugs,” the letter said.

“I listened as part of the process of reconciliation,” says Athié, not as a judge or investigator. As a confessor, he wanted Fernandez “to be at peace with himself, God and others.”

That did not come easily. Fernandez “was very intense in his rejection of Maciel. He refused to pardon him,” Athié told NCR.

Roqueñi also met with Fernandez, helping him with an annulment of his marriage. The former university president told Roqueñi of his plans to return to his native Spain. Fernandez made a partial recovery, and in 1995 visited Roqueñi to express thanks and say he was leaving for Spain. But his health declined; the trip never came off.

In his final months Fernandez dictated a lengthy account of his experiences with Maciel. Several ex-Legion friends looked on. Before Fernandez died, Maciel visited him in the hospital, offering to fly him to Spain for treatment. But according to Dr. Gabriela Quintera Calleja, the physician who treated Fernandez, he refused Maciel’s offer. After the Legion leader left, Fernandez said to Quintera, “Watch him. He is a fox.”

The Legion later produced a letter from a man described as Fernandez’s physician, claiming that Fernandez was not physically capable of dictating the statement attributed to him because he had suffered a stroke, impairing his ability to speak and write. However, Quintera said the man is not a medical doctor but a psychotherapist often employed by the Legion. Further, the man was not treating Fernandez, Quintera said. Quintera said that Fernandez “made his declaration in full use of his mental faculties.”

Athié said Fernandez realized that if he was to die in peace it was necessary to forgive Maciel. Weeping, Fernandez told Athié, “I pardon Father Maciel but at the same time I ask for justice.” Athié recalled, “After that he entered into a deep peace, made [the sacrament of] reconciliation and had Communion.”

Fernandez asked Athié to celebrate his funeral Mass, and tell the mourners what Maciel had done to him and his demand for justice.

Climate of fear

Fernandez died on Feb. 5, 1995, and at the funeral Mass Athié spoke of how Maciel had harmed Fernandez; he also included his parting words. When the Mass was over, Jose Barba introduced himself to Athié, revealing his and other Legionaries’ experiences with Maciel.

“Because of the climate of fear, I did not know who the others were,” said Athié.

After the 1997 news reports about Maciel, Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City called the Legion founder the victim of “a plot.” Athié met with Rivera, and tried to tell him what he had learned from the deceased Fernandez.

Rivera “said it was a plot and there was nothing else to say,” said Athié, his hands upturned in a gesture of helplessness.

“He was more and more bothered with me. There was no situation where the cardinal would discuss the case in a reasonable manner.”

Athié did not make a mission of denouncing Maciel; however, he did confide in Roqueñi, which gave the canon lawyer greater confidence in the Barba’s account and those of the other alleged victims in addition to Fernandez.

The accusations against Maciel stirred deep controversy, especially in the Mexican Catholic church.

Over time, Athié said, he found himself blocked in almost everything he tried to do, although “nothing was ever said to me.”

“I became marginalized in the church,” Athié said in an interview April 16 at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, where he went on sabbatical earlier this year.

Athié said he felt compelled to resign his positions with the Mexican bishops because of his role in the “Maciel affair” and for taking other stands that were unpopular with the cardinal and some bishops. Rivera did not respond to requests for comment.

In the spring of 1997, Roqueñi read an account of the accusations against Maciel in the Mexico City newspaper, La Jornada, which had picked up on the report by The Hartford Courant.

At a friend’s request, he agreed to meet with Barba and Jose Antonio Perez Olivera. In the meantime, on Dec. 9, 1997, the Mexican newspaper magazine Milenio published an open letter from Barba and his colleagues to the pope, reiterating their charges against Maciel. Roqueñi met the two men for dinner at a restaurant. He said he was “astounded” by what they had to say.

Nevertheless, Roqueñi told them they had made a mistake by going to the media before seeking justice through an ecclesiastical court. Barba and Perez retorted they had tried to reach church officials, but no one had answered, much less suggested a church legal process.

After several meetings, Roqueñi offered to be their canonical adviser. Roqueñi, who studied canon law in Rome on a scholarship from the conservative Opus Dei movement, is no liberal crusader. But, as he reflected, “For me this was a matter of the law -- church law.”

Roqueñi has since been dismissed from the Mexico City tribunal. He now works as a hospital chaplain and in other capacities.

“I can’t say that my help to [the accusers] is the cause of my removal,” he remarked. “The archbishop has the right to place persons in whatever positions he wants. I accept that right, even if he doesn’t give me a real reason. ... Some people will think I’m an idiot for talking to you. But I accept the risk.”

In early 1998, Barba and another former Legion member visited the residence of the papal nuncio in Mexico, Archbishop Justo Mullor, seeking support for their cause. They gave a copy of their letter to the pope to a nun who worked for the nuncio. They spoke briefly to Mullor by phone. According to Barba, Mullor said, “I promise your letter will reach the hands of the Holy Father.”

In July, Barba called the nunciature and spoke to Mullor by phone, for nearly a half-hour, he said. Mullor assured him that he had given the letter to the pope. He also told him that if they wanted a response from the church, that they should stop speaking to the media and let the church proceed in its own way. “The church has tribunals of her own,” he said, encouraging them to go to the canonical courts at the Vatican. Coming from the papal diplomat in Mexico, Barba said the statement added a measure of hope to his quest.

Into the Vatican labyrinth

On Oct. 8, 1998, Barba, Roqueñi and Arturo Jurado Guzman, a professor at the Defense Languages Institute of the U.S. military in Monterrey, Calif., flew to Rome. Jurado had been a classmate of Barba’s in the Legion. He, too, had gone on to receive a doctorate, in romance languages. Jurado’s interviews and notarized statements detail a history of sex abuse by Maciel during his youth and of buying morphine for Maciel at hospitals and pharmacies in Italy and Mexico.

Roqueñi wanted a suitable canonist in the Vatican to represent Maciel’s accusers at the Vatican. He had a list of some 130 canon lawyers who held the necessary license to function in the three special tribunals at the Vatican -- the Signatura, the Rota and Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Roqueñi arranged a procedural meeting with Fr. Vincente Carcel-Orti, the president of the Signatura. Carcel, a Spaniard in his late 60s, received them cordially. Roqueñi explained the nature of the case, without identifying Maciel. Carcel remarked that such a case always ran the risk of being thrown out on an appeal by the accused. The meeting lasted about 30 minutes.

After seeking insight from Vatican contacts on whom to choose as their canon lawyer, Barba and Jurado were intrigued with the name Martha Wegan. A native of Austria, Wegan lived in a 14th-century building in the Vatican. She won high marks from several people they consulted.

Wegan, a veteran in her field, struck the Mexicans as fair-minded and dedicated to her work. After listening to the accusations, she spoke of a case she had filed against the Legion of Christ for a Canadian couple who wanted to extricate their son from the order. They believed their son had been duped into joining a cult. The case was dismissed when the congregation in charge of religious life said that the son was old enough to make his own decision.

“You must accept what the Vatican says,” Wegan cautioned her clients. She could introduce a case, but it was up to the Vatican to decide if it had merit.

Roqueñi understood her position. He had sometimes been disappointed by the outcome of cases, but canon law was part of the church.

From the outset, however, the canon lawyers recognized a steep procedural cliff.

Wegan said she knew Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the congregation’s prefect, and members of his staff. She did not promise any privileged access but said she believed they would get a fair hearing.

Wegan told NCR she was unable to comment on the case. “I cannot talk to journalists,” she said.

Kissing the cardinal’s ring

Wegan advised the Mexicans to meet with an official at the congregation. She secured an appointment with Fr. Gianfranco Girotti, a Franciscan priest and one of Ratzinger’s three secretaries.

On Oct. 17, 1998, Wegan and the three men entered the Palazza Sant’Ufficio and went directly to Girotti’s office. As they entered the building, Ratzinger was having a conversation on a patio, perhaps 50 feet away.

The Mexicans spoke with Girotti in Italian, a language in which Barba and Jurado were fluent. Roqueñi speaks Italian, too, from his years of canonical study in Rome.

Girotti asked few questions as Wegan and Roqueñi outlined the case.

Finally, Girotti said, in Spanish: Porqué hora? Why, he wondered, were they raising the issue after so many years?

Barba told him about the full-page advertisements in 1994 celebrating Maciel’s 50 years as a priest. More than any single factor, they said, the newspaper advertisements had emboldened them to seek out journalists and tell their story.

Girotti seemed satisfied with the responses of Barba and Jurado, the men said later. The meeting lasted less than an hour. Near the end, Girotti said smilingly, “You must refrain from talking to journalists.”

“But Monsignor,” replied Barba, “we have already done so.”

Girotti understood that the abuse allegations had appeared in the press. But, Barba said, he wanted to prevent media coverage of their canon law appeal.

Wegan presented Girotti with a statement of accusation, citing Canon 977, (on the “absolution of an accomplice in a sin against the Sixth Commandment”); Canon 1378 (“absolution of an accomplice”); and Canon 1362, (“offenses reserved to the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”).

As they were leaving, Ratzinger stepped out of an elevator into the hall. In turn, Martha Wegan, Roqueñi, Jurado and Barba knelt and kissed the cardinal’s ring, a common sign of deference to church authority in Latin cultures.

Ratzinger, smiling lightly, murmured words of thanks. And with that they left, choosing not to raise with the cardinal all that they had just discussed with his aide.

Barba and Jurado paid Martha Wegan a modest $400 for the first portion of her work. Though clearly a Vatican loyalist, she had gotten the process of ecclesiastical justice moving. Barba and Jurado, confident that they would finally have their hearing, left Rome with Roqueñi on a wave of optimism. In December Barba sent Wegan a dossier of personal statements, detailing the abuse, by other members of the group.

In January of 1999, Barba telephoned Wegan to check the status of the case. She said that Girotti was receptive, Barba told NCR. Wegan also told him the congregation was having trouble finding Maciel, Barba said.

Later the same month, Pope John Paul II made his fourth trip to Mexico. “On that visit, Maciel was nowhere in public,” the religious scholar Elio Masferrer of the National School of Anthropology and History in Mexico City told NCR in an interview there this past March 2.

Ten archbishops and cardinals, and one bishop bid farewell to the pope, according to Masferrer. “In my opinion, there were two reasons for Maciel’s absence,” he continued. “First was the impact of the canon law case filed against him. The second has to do with his aloofness. He flew with the pope [the previous time], but does not participate with Catholic universities or in religious organizations,” Masferrer said. “The hierarchy views him as a competitor who has broken with the structure of collegiality.”

On Feb. 20, 1999, the canonist Wegan wrote her clients with encouraging news. She reported that the congregation saw the case as acceptable to proceed. It was officially filed at the Vatican under the title Absolutionis complicis (A. Jurado et alii -- Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado).

While Barba, Jurado and Roqueñi were pursuing their case, Athié was traveling a separate route to call to the attention of church authorities what he had heard from Fernandez Amenabar, the dying former priest. Athié was confident that the matter could be handled quietly within the church.

In the course of his work for the bishops, Athié met with Archbishop Justo Mullor, the papal nuncio to Mexico. Near the end of their conversation, Athié told Mullor about his relationship with the late Fernandez and of his frustration with Rivera, the cardinal-archbishop in Mexico who insisted that the accusations against Maciel were a plot.

Mullor, Athié said, asked him to write a statement about his encounter with Fernandez “without making any judgment” and to give a copy to Mullor and deliver a copy personally to Ratzinger in Rome.

‘Matter is closed’

Athié complied. He had to visit the Vatican in June of 1999 as part of his work with Caritas. In Rome he tried to make an appointment with Ratzinger, but was told the cardinal was too busy.

When Athié returned to Mexico he gave his letter about Fernandez to a longtime friend, who was about to go to Rome himself, Bishop Carlos Talavara of Coatzacoalcos, Mexico.

Athié asked Talavera to deliver the letter personally to Ratzinger. Talavera knew the background. He reported that when he got to Rome, he met with Ratzinger and gave him the letter.

According to Athié, Talavera said Ratzinger had spoken of the case as a delicate matter, had praised the work Maciel had done for the church, especially the numerous vocations to the priesthood he had generated and had asked whether it was prudent to raise the issue now.

Roqueñi also spoke with Talavera and, he said, the bishop gave him the same account of the meeting with Ratzinger as he had given Athié.

The Vatican press office, when asked, told NCR that Ratzinger did not make those statements.

Talavera did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment on Athié’s and Roqueñi’s accounts.

On Dec. 24, 1999, Martha Wegan wrote her clients, saying she had “sad news.”

“I finally succeeded in speaking with Fr. Girotti,” she wrote. “In fact, I spoke with him twice. But the result was not very good.

“For the time being the matter is closed,” her letter continued. “They looked into the matter and confirmed to me that some people have lost their jobs, that the cardinal of Mexico is the person who is, etc., etc.

“Sad news,” she wrote, “but on the other hand since this is such a delicate situation, time should be allowed to play its role, and who knows what will happen later on.”

Her reference to the cardinal’s role is unclear.

On March 1, 2000, Roqueñi wrote to Girotti and put his career on the line by suggesting that the congregation was not doing its job.

“The fact is that more than 17 months have gone by and the only notice that the claimants have, communicated by your attorney [Wegan], is that the matter is extremely delicate, [and] that there are other related claims. From Roqueñi’s point of view, Vatican officials were “weighing the scandal that a judicial resolution would cause, if condemnatory for the one accused, or favorable for the claimants.

“The claimants fear that, despite the accumulation of proof brought up to this time with respect to the illicit acts denounced, the file continues to be put off and there is no conclusion to the case,” Roqueñi wrote.

Roqueñi said he was surprised that procedures were not being followed “as is customary in any formal proceeding.” He said members of the congregation “are bound by the rules of the church and cannot arbitrarily set them aside under any pretext.”

Girotti did not reply

Disappointed, Barba made one final attempt to put the canonical case back on track. He was traveling in Italy on vacation that summer.

On July 2, 2000, he said, he called Wegan from his hotel in Rome and had a long conversation with her. According to Barba, she suggested that he speak directly to Ratzinger. Barba declined, saying he would rather talk to Girotti, who had been their contact through the long legal effort.

Barba said he wanted to tell Girotti directly they could no longer be bound by their promise to keep quiet due to the “unfair treatment” they had received.

Wegan recommended that Barba say a prayer to St. Felicia, “an advocate for difficult cases.”

“I graciously accepted that recommendation as a friend,” Barba recalled. “But what we wanted and needed was her legal support in the matter. I must say that, in spite of my slight exasperation, she was always kind and understanding.”

Wegan arranged for Barba to meet with Girotti at 10 a.m. on July 31, 2000, and accompanied him to the meeting. Girotti asked his aides to escort the pair from a small room to a larger, more attractive parlor.

Barba said he told Girotti: “We want to be judged!”

According to Barba, Girotti responded by saying: “It is not you who have to be judged, but him [Maciel].”

Barba went on: “He said it was such a serious case, yet he seemed exasperated. I told him that the word we had given to keep silent with the media stops now. He asked, ‘Why?’ I said there were rumors in Mexico that friends of the Legion had given us money to keep quiet. I told him, ‘We have suffered too much.’ ”

Then, Barba said, something extraordinary happened. After two years of working their case through the ecclesiastical system of justice, Girotti suggested that they file a civil lawsuit against Maciel.

Athié returned to Mexico after his sabbatical. He said he has not had any stable work since March 2000. But, he said, “I do some service for CELAM (Latin American Bishops’ Council) as social justice adviser and I am working in one personal project to help the campesinos in Mexico.”

In the interview in Chicago, Athié offered his opinion on the Vatican’s handling of the Maciel case. “It is an immoral thing,” he said.

Last January, the Legion of Christ celebrated its 60th anniversary.

On Jan. 4, in St. Peter’s Square, Pope John Paul received Maciel and praised him before 20,000 Legion members in Rome.

“With special affection I greet your beloved founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel, and extend to him my heartfelt congratulations on this important event, cordially thanking him for the words he addressed to me on everyone’s behalf,” the pope said. “I especially appreciated his confirmation of your characteristic fidelity to the successor of Peter.”

Jason Berry, a freelance writer based in New Orleans, is author of the 1992 book Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children. Gerald Renner, recently retired as religion writer for The Hartford Courant, is based in Norwalk, Conn. Renner and Berry collaborated on an article about the allegations of sexual abuse against Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, published in the Courant on Feb. 23, 1997. An account of the allegations is included in a revised paperback edition of Berry’s book, published last year by the University of Illinois Press.

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001