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Issue Date:  May 26, 2006

The sad truth about Maciel

The decision by the Vatican in the case of Fr. Marciel Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, that he be restricted in his public ministry after being found guilty of multiple acts of sexual abuse spanning decades brings some resolution to a particularly disturbing chapter in recent church history.

While there is much to be said about the final disposition of this case, we start by expressing our sincere sorrow to members of the Legion. We know all too well how we have pressed for judicial proceedings against Maciel on these pages, convinced that the truth would not be served unless the victims were given full and fair hearing at the highest levels of the church. We are aware that we have been highly critical at times of the Legion’s defense of its founder and of some of the tactics it has employed in establishing itself in new ministries in the United States.

That said, we know that those differences notwithstanding, we all profess the same faith, and we love and claim membership in the same Catholic community. No division, then, is deep or wide enough to prevent a sincere expression of our concern for those who have dedicated their lives to the mission of the church and who now have to deal with the news of the Vatican finding.

In the long trajectory of this scandal and in all its manifestations it seems that most often we arrive at the awful truth slowly and unwillingly. The Legion now has to face the question of what will ultimately define it, the human frailty of its founder or the way the order handles that reality. It might well, in the end, provide an example for the rest of us, especially for our bishops, of transparency, responsibility, compassion and humility. This time of trial could inspire the order’s finest hour.

What is said beyond this point is secondary to the solidarity we express with all in the Legion as you live out, in real time and more publicly than is fair to ask of anyone, the Paschal mystery.

* * *

Maciel was an imposing international figure who commanded intense loyalty, raised enormous sums of money, won the special favor of Pope John Paul II and other high Vatican officials, and indignantly protested his innocence until the evidence became overwhelming.

It would be difficult to overstate the significance of the lessons to be drawn from this episode.

One need only follow the path of the first accusers -- the ridicule and vilification they encountered, the institutional scorn and derision they had to overcome to even begin to state their case -- to understand the difficulty of bringing charges against a revered church leader. The church owes them a debt of gratitude.

The case illustrates, too, the long time it often takes for victims, some shattered in their childhood, to begin to deal with such deep wounds. Often they do so taking on the dual burdens of reestablishing their lives while raising the specter of extreme disorder and sickness at the highest levels of the community.

What has become clear in such cases is that the effects of these crimes can play out with severe damage over such a long period of time that it is difficult to see how justice can be achieved, for either the victim or the accused. The prospects of justice are further dimmed by the growing understanding that the abuse is most likely the result of illness, not criminal intent.

Those complexities seem to be understood widely among Catholics who have long turned the focus of their anger from individual acts of abuse to the deliberate concealment of sexual predators and protection of those guilty of harming children.

It is the cover-up, including the payment of huge sums early on to procure silence, that continues to infuriate Catholics who have no way to expect or demand accountability on the part of their leaders. The cover-up is the product of secrecy, privilege and a lack of accountability that are major elements of the clerical culture in which the sex abuse scandal flourished. While sexual abuse of children and cover-up of the crimes occurs widely throughout the general culture, that fact should provide little comfort to an institution that professes the Christian Gospel. What has made the scandal infinitely worse than it need be is not the fact that abuse occurs. That is, perhaps, an inevitability in any sizeable institution. It was made worse because officials either ignored or downplayed the claims of victims and went to great lengths in many cases to protect the abusers.

* * *

For all of the commendable achievements of Pope John Paul II, his blindness to this cancer within the church and his unwillingness until the last years of his long reign to understand the urgency of the problem will be seen as serious flaws of his tenure. His inaction sent signals that he both tolerated and encouraged the debilitating culture of deceit.

The case of Maciel, whose victims ranged from youngsters in his charge to young priests, is the most dramatic example of the late pope’s failure. Vatican officials today explain that John Paul did not have the information with which to judge the case. That’s the very point, however. One can only conclude he failed to listen to the victims and believed for far too long that the scandal was the malicious work of those who opposed the Legion because of its loyalty to him.

Faced with compelling evidence and repeated warnings, John Paul exhibited no sense of the need to investigate credible claims immediately. Instead, he lavished on Maciel the perks of privilege. He gave him a place of honor during some of his international travels, bestowed special benefits upon his order and even hailed him as “an efficacious guide to youth,” a horrible and tragic misreading of reality.

The level of Maciel’s deception and the gullibility of church officials is difficult to comprehend. Late last year, the Vatican’s top official for religious orders, speaking of Maciel as he stepped down from leadership of the Legionaries, called him “the instrument chosen by God to carry out one of the great spiritual designs in the church of the 20th century.”

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano came to his friend Maciel’s defense, hailing “the great work that you do.”

That Maciel was able to dupe his order, donors and Vatican officials straight up to the pope so convincingly and for so long is further evidence that the hierarchical culture sometimes works overtime to shield itself and those it favors from hard truths.

The Maciel case reveals much about who in the community is listened to; about how isolated certain levels of the church can be from what is going on in local communities; about how blind officials have been to one of the most debilitating scandals to hit the church in centuries. We risk repeating a worn warning because we think it is important to the integrity and very life of the church. The sex abuse scandal is merely the most sensational and disturbing symptom of what happens when the model of priestly service offered by Christ, which the church at its best has realized for two millennia, is distorted into a system of secrecy, privilege, distance from the people and a lack of accountability to anything or anyone save the clerical culture itself.

Perhaps it is sign of a major breakthrough that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was able, finally, to deal honestly with this notorious case and risk the wrath of those who simply do not want to believe that such things happen.

* * *

As we understand the process that led to the recent Vatican findings, much gratitude is owed Msgr. Charles Scicluna and the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who finally took the time to begin reviewing briefs of the abuse cases from the United States, gradually becoming convinced that there was more to the claims of the victims than they first believed. Ratzinger, who initially shut down the probe of Maciel, then allowed the investigation to go forward, an investigation that involved interviewing witnesses on several continents and extensive questioning of victims. In the end, it was Pope Benedict XVI who signed off on the recommendation of those in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who found Maciel guilty and advised that he be removed from active ministry.

For all of the missteps earlier on, the church ultimately got it right -- and it must have required no small amount of courage to do so. We would have preferred a fuller accounting of the documentation and some comment from those who saw the files on Maciel and who privately say the evidence was overwhelming.

From the United States to Ireland, to England to Australia and New Zealand to Mexico and in various parts of Africa -- in short, throughout much of the world -- the specter of clerical sexual abuse of the vulnerable is an issue that cannot be ignored. More important, though, is the institutional cover-up of such abuse by the highest levels of church leadership. Pastors, bishops, archbishops and cardinals, on up to the pope, in one way or another all those levels have been involved in denying, covering up, revictimizing victims and disparaging those who have attempted to reveal the breadth and depth of the problem.

The decision on Maciel provides a chance to reverse that pattern, to stop blaming everyone else and the general culture and to look deeply at the culture within the church that allowed the scandal to persist, eroding the church’s authority, credibility and moral standing in the world.

It is time for the church to provide answers for why and how such widespread deceit and denial occurred.

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2006

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