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Issue Date:  June 3, 2005

Maciel scandal won't go away

If Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the religious order the Legionaries of Christ, were a priest in the United States, he would not be permitted in active ministry.

Some may not consider the U.S. norms ideal, but the crisis caused by the sex abuse scandal and the concomitant crisis of authority in the church demand bold and determined measures. Few cases have generated the notoriety and challenge to the church’s integrity and credibility that the Maciel case has. Maciel was warmly praised by the late Pope John Paul II and, by all accounts, was able to raise enormous amounts of money that have gone to establishing a religious empire in a short time.

Clergy sex abuse victims the world over who have heard pious words and statements of resolve from the hierarchy were waiting to see if the church at the highest levels would discontinue the practice of protecting priests at all costs and do a thorough investigation of the charges against Maciel, as well as a thorough accounting of its findings.

So, when the news reports said that the Vatican had apparently dropped the investigation, had not launched a formal canonical procedure in response to allegations, and that it had no plans to do so, many saw the development as a stinging disappointment. The announcement raised far more questions than it answered. The lack of resolution to the case eventually could be far more damaging to the church’s credibility than the jolt of bad news that might issue from a thorough airing of the case against Maciel.

As it turns out, however, the real problem may not be any decision by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but rather papal palace intrigue involving an old friend of Maciel and the willingness of the Legionaries to mislead the world and allow the misconception to stand until a reporter happened to ask the right question of the right person.

It turns out that the reasonable presumption that everyone was working under -- that the statement had been issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the agency with the responsibility for making such judgments -- was incorrect. The statement on which the Legionaries had based their release, a release that itself overstates the Italian in translation, actually came from the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, an office run by Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, a longtime friend of Maciel and an enthusiastic supporter of the order.

To be fair, the Legionaries didn’t misstate anything. The release reported that the “Holy See” said that “there is no investigation now” and that one was not foreseen in the future. “Holy See” covers a multitude of possibilities.

However, had the Legionaries said in the release that the Vatican’s Secretariat of State had made the statement, anyone familiar with the workings of the Vatican and with who’s responsible for what, would immediately have exercised a great degree of skepticism and started asking more questions.

For the record, it should be noted that the wording of the communication from the Secretariat of State is not quite as categorical as the Legionaries’ May 20 news release implies. The Vatican has not said definitively that there never will be a process, but that one “is not foreseen,” leaving open the possibility of future developments. It may seem a small point, but it adds to the mountain of disinformation that the Legionaries have generated over the years about their founder.

Further, that small point will be cold comfort to Maciel’s alleged victims, who believe their day in court has already been long delayed, and whose hopes were raised by recent meetings with the congregation’s chief investigator, Msgr. Charles Scicluna. Given Maciel’s age, 85, not moving forward now is perhaps tantamount to a decision never to do so at all.

To date, the Vatican has offered no explanation for the decision. It’s not clear whether it’s because Scicluna or his superiors, including Pope Benedict XVI, don’t believe the charges against Maciel; whether they determined that the evidence is compelling but not beyond a reasonable doubt; whether they decided that in view of Maciel’s age, his resignation in January as superior of the order, and his service to the church, that it did not make sense to prosecute; or whether the logic is something else altogether. Leaving this up in the air is simply not satisfactory. It is unfair to many in the Legion because suspicion will linger over their founder, and it is unfair to the larger Catholic community, which once again is left to deduce that protecting the reputation of the clergy and of the institution is more important than getting at the truth.

The Legion itself has been of little help in pursuing the truth. In response to queries, it sends people to its Web site, which contains a tired and wholly inadequate defense of Maciel, even as new charges and evidence piles up. That Maciel once declared his innocence is irrelevant in the face of the accusations and the lack of a process that gives the charges a fair hearing. Citing the reluctance of young seminarians decades ago to come out against a leader who has been described repeatedly by responsible witnesses as a dominant and domineering personality overseeing a culture in which he demanded absolute and unquestioning loyalty to himself is an absurd way of trying to dispel suspicion. Anyone who has had anything to do with abuse victims knows that reasonable people, in far less intimidating circumstances, have been cowed into silence for decades by the awful experience of being sexually abused.

Church authorities have been understandably hesitant to discuss individual cases in public, on the grounds that both the accused and the victims have a right to their good names and to privacy. In this case, however, silence does not serve the interests of any of the parties. In the U.S. vernacular, what is happening in Rome on the Maciel case is a whitewash, a continuation of the cover-up and deception that has so deeply wounded the church here.

If Vatican officials believe that Maciel is innocent, justice demands that they say so, especially given the way these charges have enjoyed wide international circulation. If they believe the evidence is inconclusive, that too should be said, so that at least the parties will know where they stand. If officials have prudential reasons for not moving against Maciel, the accusers have a right to know that this inaction does not presume a judgment about the veracity of their accounts.

Moreover, it’s not just the rights of Maciel and his accusers that are at stake. The broader Catholic public has justifiable concerns about the pattern of official response to the sexual abuse crisis, and a laconic statement that the church does not intend to move against an accused priest, with no explanation offered, will do little to assuage those concerns. On the contrary, it will deepen the cynicism and resentment that is already too pervasive in the Catholic community.

For pastoral reasons, therefore, as well as due process of law, the Vatican needs to offer an explanation.

Pope Benedict XVI’s motto as the archbishop of Munich was cooperators veritatis, “coworkers of the truth.” He has challenged Western culture to recover its confidence in objective truth, over against a lazy relativism. All the more reason, therefore, for the church to practice what its leader preaches -- it needs to tell the truth, and the whole truth, about the Maciel case.

National Catholic Reporter, June 3, 2005

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