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Issue Date:  November 11, 2005

Vigilance called for when Legion priests visit

A reader from the Southwest e-mailed recently to inform us that two priests who are members of the Legionaries of Christ recently celebrated Mass at his parish. This reader was concerned that the order might have designs -- as it has demonstrated elsewhere -- on taking over a parish school.

The fear is justified. In too many cases the Legion has moved in with congregations unaware. We have reported on several instances where the order has taken over a school, revised curriculum, set up some rather strange ways of getting their message across and fired long-standing professionals -- from administrators to teachers -- who raised questions (NCR, Nov. 3, 2000).

There are, undoubtedly, good and sincere priests who belong to the Legion.

There are also, undoubtedly, good reasons why several bishops have banned the order and its ancillary groups from operating in their dioceses. Too often those groups come off as sneaky and underhanded in the way they operate, and some of the practices that have been reported in the way they run their schools are bizarre.

Any bishop or pastor who invites the Legion in should require that the order practice maximum transparency, being clear about its aims and informing education officials and the bishop of all of their activities. Parishioners should have a say in whether a school would be placed in control of the Legion, and there should be opportunities for public dialogue if the order intends to propose changes in personnel or curriculum. Given past history, any involvement of Legionaries’ clergy or Regnum Christi members in a Catholic school ought to be disclosed. No one should wake up feeling that the Legionaries have “taken over” their child’s school.

That kind of disclosure is especially important these days in the U.S. church, which is still battling the effects of continuing revelations of the sex abuse scandal and the secrecy with which the scandal was handled.

It would be unfair, of course, to judge all Legionaries by the founder of the order, but it is not unfair to understand that for many the order has also become a symbol of all that is wrong with the church’s response to that crisis. The order was founded by Fr. Marciel Maciel Delgollado, a priest who has been credibly accused of sexual abuse of young seminarians by a growing list of former seminarians and priests of the order (NCR, June 3).

Any bishop or pastor has to know that the order, whatever good it might do, works under a pall of suspicion. It has yet to deal in any significant or honest way with the accusations. Instead of defending Maciel with fanciful theories of far-flung conspiracies, the order should be advocating a full Vatican investigation into the accusations.

The Legion has already shown itself to be a powerful and well-funded example of one expression of Catholicism. It has to know, however, that any good it does is accompanied by a cloud that threatens its integrity, a cloud that will not be dispelled until the wider community can trust that the charges against its founder have been fully investigated and, if necessary, adjudicated. The Vatican is reportedly investigating and would do everyone a favor by dealing with this case in a timely way.

In the meantime, pastors and bishops should exercise due diligence: Demand transparency and accountability.

National Catholic Reporter, November 11, 2005

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