World -- Commentary
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  June 2, 2006

Maciel devotees resist Vatican ruling


The small, dusty town of Cotija lies in south central Mexico, a region where the Cristero War (1926-32) saw some of its fiercest fighting. Cristero forces were a cross section of Catholics who rose against a Marxist regime that had been murdering priests with impunity. In 1932, when the Vatican helped broker a truce, Marcial Maciel Degollado was a boy of 12.

Cotija, the hometown of the Legion of Christ founder, has a retreat center for Regnum Christi, the lay wing of the order. A tomb for Maciel’s mother (whom he nominated for sainthood) is there. The town square has a statue of his late uncle, Bishop Rafael Guizar Valencia, who led a clandestine seminary during the Cristero war. Maciel, 86, had been in Cotija for months before the May 19 Vatican communiqué that stripped him of public priestly duties after a long investigation into charges of sexual abuse that shadowed him for many years.

The communiqué offered few facts. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “decided -- bearing in mind Maciel’s advanced age and his delicate health -- to forgo a canonical hearing and to invite the father to a reserved life of penitence and prayer, relinquishing any form of public ministry. The Holy Father approved these decisions. Independently of the person of the founder, the worthy apostolate of the Legionaries of Christ and of the association Regnum Christi is gratefully recognized.”

Benedict humiliated the most famous priest in Mexico and sent shock waves through the ranks of 60,000 Regnum Christi members in several countries. These lay folk meet in prayer groups, study Maciel’s writings and raise money. It was one of the reasons the Legion was indebted to Pope John Paul II, who championed Maciel. His words and image (with Maciel) were central to Legion fundraising.

Months ago, Legionaries working to establish the University of Sacramento in California, made no mention of Maciel in fundraising letters.

How does a religious order built on a cult of personality -- teaching children in Legion prep schools and seminaries that the founder is a living saint -- change its ethos? Will the order rewrite its official history to correct its blatant fabrications about Maciel? Will the Legion Web site continue refuting accusations that the Vatican has validated?

Benedict did something rare and unexpected: He openly broke with his predecessor, internally banishing a priest who was lavishly celebrated by John Paul. For Juan Vaca, the punishment fell short of the crime. Vaca, 69, is a former Legion priest who in 1976 sent the first in a series of petitions to the Vatican detailing allegations of abuse against 20 seminarians. “The Vatican made no mention of us, the victims,” he told NCR. “I think the communiqué was concocted with the Legion participating in its drafting.”

Benedict’s decision was still an encouraging step, an implicit admission of the Vatican’s failure.

Vaca was one of eight men from Mexico and Spain who filed the case in 1998, a year after Gerald Renner and I investigated Maciel’s shadowy past in a story that appeared in the Hartford (Conn.) Courant. A ninth victim, now deceased, is documented in the materials given to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A tenth man -- who in a long 1996 interview gave me graphic accounts of his abuse by Maciel -- retracted his statement, four months later, in an affidavit sent to the Courant the day before the story of Maciel’s past was published.

On the Vatican’s decision, John L. Allen Jr., NCR Rome correspondent, citing Vatican sources, wrote that there were “more than 20, but less than 100” accusers.

That’s a lot of men testifying to sexual assaults they endured as boys or young men.

The Legion statement has no hint of apology: “Fr. Maciel, with the spirit of obedience to the church that has always characterized him, has accepted this communiqué with faith, complete serenity, and tranquility of conscience. … Following the example of Christ, [he] decided not to defend himself in any way.”

A pedophile compared to Christ is hubris more bizarre than anything yet in the media circus of celebrities or politicians who apologize for disgracing themselves and keep getting air time. Maciel was never a celebrity. Famous, yes, but beyond Mexico largely unknown outside orthodox circles. But he was arguably the most successful fundraiser in the modern church, attracting millions as Legion schools spread in America and Europe. The Legion used John Paul’s image in mass mailings and in sending seminarians with priests into private homes to pitch donors. Maciel promoted himself as crusading to uplift the church in a fallen world. He avoided the media for decades; the Legion’s official history is replete with references to enemies of, misunderstandings about and calumnies against Maciel. Keeping under news radar was important to Maciel, for any serious scrutiny would raise questions. The Legion had been operating in Connecticut 30 years with nothing in the U.S. press about the order when Renner reported in 1996 on psychological control tactics practiced in Legion seminaries and in Legion fundraising.

Benedict gave the order a chance to strike distance from Maciel. Instead, by comparing Maciel to a wronged Christ, the Legionaries proved that Maciel is still in control. The Legion Web site still has links to statements calling the allegations “unproven,” attacking the men who brought the case and Renner and me. The Legion’s cyberspace record is a case study in disinformation with leading conservatives -- George Weigel, Mary Ann Glendon, the Catholic League’s William Donahue, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus -- defending Maciel and the Legion.

Benedict’s decision should cause no one to gloat. Imagine the bewilderment of those who put their reputations, money and children behind Maciel and his movement. This is a bomb dropped on them.

There is growing literature in Spanish and English on Legion seminarians who spy on visitors; parents traumatized by the loss of children to a movement that prides itself on “capturing” souls; and the order’s pervasive materialism and quest for money. The order cannot change without a Vatican intervention.

Neuhaus, the editor of First Things magazine, wrote a 2002 commentary claiming “moral certainty” that the charges were “false” and “malicious.” He never interviewed the men who filed the case; but he gave an intriguing clue: “A cardinal in whom I have unbounded confidence and who has been involved in the case tells me that the charges are ‘pure invention, without the slightest foundation.’ ”

Two cardinals collided on the Maciel case: Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, in whose office the case was filed, and Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, who put pressure on Ratzinger to halt the case. Whoever gave Neuhaus assurance of Maciel’s innocence in 2002 had no pretrial evidence, only the complaint. Such rhetoric is a classic example of a fortress mentality.

That was four years ago, and today Neuhaus is something of a victim; he must feel misled, if not duped. And his reactions so far are likely a good barometer for those who similarly are both invested in the Legion’s version of Maciel’s history and trying to make sense of the discipline.

If Ratzinger was his source, imagine Neuhaus’s conflicted sense of betrayal. But valid information changes minds; as Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote, “To live is to change.” John Paul’s myopic support of Maciel cut hard on Ratzinger’s ethics. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had 700 cases of priests facing laicization in 2004 when he sent Maltese Msgr. Charles Scicluna to take testimonial evidence. Ratzinger saw Maciel as a liability to whomever the next pope might be. How could the congregation punish other priests while sheltering Maciel?

When the news broke, Neuhaus told The New York Times that he considered Maciel innocent, that the church had erred. Then, on the First Things Web site, he tried to rationalize Benedict’s decision: “ ‘Penitence’ in this connection does not connote punishment for wrongdoing.” Of course it does. Stripping a priest of public functions is punishment. Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese lost his job at America when the Vatican disciplined him. Theologians Fr. Charles Curran and Fr. Hans Küng were not permitted to teach as “Catholic” theologians. But none of them lost his faculties or permission to minister publicly. Anyone who knows how the Vatican operates also understands that taking an old and revered figure out of public ministry is severe punishment.

On the First Things Web site, Neuhaus was sinking into ambivalence. “I do not protest this directive implying that Fr. Maciel is guilty of wrongdoing. It is obvious that CDF and the Holy Father know more than I know with respect to evidence supporting the guilt or innocence of Fr. Maciel.”

Read on as he sorts out conflicted loyalty: “The venerable spiritual tradition being followed here is that of purification through suffering, in the confidence that Fr. Maciel will one day be vindicated. There is ample historical precedent of holy men and women who were unjustly treated by church authorities. St. Joan of Arc, for an obvious instance. Or the 11th-century saint, Pope Gregory VII, whose dying words were, ‘I loved righteousness, I hated iniquity, and so I die in exile.’ ”

No one accused Joan of Arc or Gregory the Great of child molesting. The comparison is unseemly. Neuhaus is apparently unaware of the pain such words cause men in their 60s and 70s who filed the case in 1998, 22 years after Juan Vaca’s pleas to the Vatican were ignored.

Neuhaus speaks no compassion for the suffering of these men, whom he has scorned. He apparently has little idea what it took for them to kiss the rosary proffered by Scicluna at a tiny convent in Mexico City 13 months ago, to swear truth to the Holy See after the church’s long inaction, and speak of sexual assaults and traumatic memories carried like a cross upon the soul.

Come to the bar of human justice, Father. We are all in this together.

Jason Berry is coauthor of Vows of Silence, and is directing a film documentary based on the book’s account of the Maciel case.

National Catholic Reporter, June 2, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: