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‘Open, just procedure’ needed in Maciel case

It is coincidental, though fitting, that Pope John Paul II would issue a dramatic apology for sex abuse by clergy the same week NCR planned to run a story detailing how the case stemming from sex abuse charges against Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado has been stalled in the Vatican bureaucracy.

Maciel, head of the powerful Legion of Christ religious order, was accused by nine men of sexually abusing them years ago when they were very young students in a legion seminary (see story Page 7).

Why revisit allegations that have been aired in detail in the past in these pages and elsewhere? Why go back over a case involving allegations that are now more than two decades old?

Because the Maciel case represents the kind of attitude displayed by church officials throughout the sex abuse crisis, an attitude that can only compound the injustice of an alleged abuse. Repeatedly, those claiming to be victims have met with official silence or worse. Too often the victims have become the targets of official rebuke as the institution concentrated primarily on preserving the reputation of the clergy.

We acknowledge that Maciel has categorically denied the allegations and that his defenders characterize the accusations as a plot by disgruntled former members of the order. Perhaps those claims are true. It seems, though, that we’ll never know because the church has refused to grant the accusers a forum for making their case.

Those bringing the accusations have so far sought no financial gain. They have wanted nothing but a hearing from the church and have been blocked in every attempt. Since their days in the order, they have established themselves in responsible positions, many as accomplished professionals. They claim they took up the case against Maciel only after the pope, who has warmly embraced the Legion and its mission, described Maciel as “an efficacious guide to youth.”

Further, the accusers have convinced respected canonists of the validity of their case. These canonists are not, by any measure, liberal campaigners against the Vatican, but are loyal servants of the church. Two priests put their careers on the line to advocate for the accusers.

We also believe there is reason to return to the Maciel case because as recently as two years ago a high official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was convinced that the case deserved a hearing. Why the congregation late in 1999 decided to drop the case remains a mystery.

In remarks in Ecclesia in Oceania, the concluding document of the 1998 Synod for Oceania, the pope writes: “Sexual abuse by some clergy and religious has caused great suffering and spiritual harm to the victims. It has been very damaging in the life of the church” (see story Page 5).

He terms such abuse “a profound contradiction of the teaching and witness of Jesus Christ.”

Participants of the synod, he said, apologized “unreservedly” to victims and also expressed a desire for “open and just procedures to respond to complaints in this area” and want to offer “compassionate and effective care for the victims, their families, the whole community and the offenders themselves.”

For several decades now, victims of sexual abuse by clergy have been begging for those very considerations from the church leadership. The American hierarchy has dealt at best unevenly with the seemingly endless scandal in this country. Priests are still protected, and some bishops still act more in the interest of avoiding lawsuits than as pastors recognizing serious violations of power and trust.

The strong acknowledgment of the problem by Pope John Paul II might lend some weight and credibility to the efforts of those who want to change the way the church has traditionally dealt with cases of sex abuse by clergy.

We’re not certain that a church procedure would be the best way to elicit the truth in this matter. Perhaps, as one official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reportedly suggested, the accusers should file a civil suit against Maciel.

But the nine men involved intended to deal quietly, within church structures, to seek justice. They believed that they could achieve their aim by pursuing the case under canon law. What they encountered was a canonical roadblock, an arbitrary suspension of their case.

The church’s credibility has been damaged in countless ways by the clergy sex abuse scandal. Establishing the “open and just procedures” advocated by the pope and reactivating the case against Maciel would mark some determined steps toward repairing what “has been very damaging in the life of the church.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001