25 Nov 2010

Catholic Legionaries founder praised by Pope John Paul II sexually abused seminarians and raped his own children

TIME - March 8, 2010

Maciel Scandal Puts Focus on a Secretive Church Order

By Tim Padgett

Mexican Catholic Father Marcial Maciel in 2005 AFP / Getty

Disgrace already hung over the Rev. Marcial Maciel when he died in 2008 at the age of 87. In 2005, beset by burgeoning charges that he had sexually abused young seminarians for decades, the Mexican priest had resigned as head of the Legionaries of Christ, one of the Roman Catholic Church's most powerful clerical orders. In 2006 the Vatican — which, under the late Pope John Paul II, had been one of Padre Maciel's staunchest allies — made him give up public ministry and confine himself to a life of "prayer and penitence."

But last week in Mexico, where Maciel founded the ultraconservative Legion in 1941, the scandal took an even unholier turn. On March 3, one of Maciel's mistresses, Blanca Lara, and two of Lara's grown sons, told MVS Radio that Maciel had sexually abused his own children. It "started when I was 7 years old," said one son, José Raúl González, now in his early 30s. "I was lying down with him like any boy, any son with his father. He pulled down my pants and tried to rape me." The abuse, González said, got worse after that and lasted years. His brother, Omar, said he too had been sexually abused by Maciel, starting at age 8. (The sons never took Maciel's surname.) Says Maciel victim Juan Vaca, 72, a former priest and adjunct psychology and sociology professor at Mercy College in New York, "This simply confirms what sort of personality we [were] dealing with: a malignant narcissist."

It wasn't so long ago that an army of conservative Catholics, including such prominent voices as the late theologian the Rev. Richard Neuhaus, would have rushed to defend Maciel, the most high-profile Catholic clergyman ever to be accused of sexual abuse. But at this point, even the Legion has resigned itself to the dark double life of the man its members often called "Nuestro Padre," or Our Father. Last year, the order conceded that Maciel had sired children. And it didn't challenge last week's allegations, posting a message on its website saying, "We share the suffering and shame of [Lara's] family, understanding the difficult circumstances they've lived and are living." Maciel, says Jim Fair, a Legion spokesman in Chicago, was "a guy who lived in two different universes. We're trying to sort out how to deal with this."

The question, though, is whether Pope Benedict XVI is poised to deal with it for them — perhaps by taking over the Legion and installing new leadership from outside the order. A number of U.S. bishops already bar the Legion from operating in their dioceses. This month Benedict is expected to receive the first report of a five-bishop team he sent out last year to investigate the Legion around the world. Sources familiar with the probe say it's meant in part to determine if others in the order besides Maciel have committed sexual abuse, and whether the order's current leadership was aware of Maciel's behavior but covered it up via payoffs to mistresses and abuse victims. Fair said the Legion had no comment in that regard. But Maciel victims like Vaca say Legion bosses such as its general director, the Rev. Alvaro Corcuera, and the Rev. John Devlin, Maciel's private secretary, should step forward with what they knew.

Still, victims are keeping their expectations low: the ultra-secretive order that Maciel built, like some shadowy fraternity from a Dan Brown novel, may be simply too powerful to cudgel. Established in 22 countries, it operates nine universities, 125 religious houses and more than 160 schools. In the U.S. alone it runs 21 élite Catholic prep schools, a university in Sacramento, Calif., and some of the only seminaries for teenage boys in the U.S. at a time when the American priesthood's ranks are thinning exponentially. In Mexico, the children of telecom billionaire Carlos Slim, one of the world's richest people, have attended its academies. In fact, like its rival conservative organization, Opus Dei, the Legion counts some of the world's wealthiest Catholics among its followers — its lay membership, known as the Regnum Christi, or Kingdom of Christ, has some 70,000 members worldwide — and it is one of the Church's top fundraisers.

Just as important, however, is the thorny issue of John Paul II, who died in 2005 and was succeeded by Benedict. The Vatican had investigated Maciel's personal life as early as the 1950s; but John Paul, whose papacy began in 1978, showered praise on the Legion's founder, calling him "an efficacious guide to youth."

Vaca says that remark is what compelled Maciel victims to tell their stories for the book Vows of Silence, published in 2004. They eventually got the Vatican, even under John Paul, to take their allegations seriously, but Church watchers say Benedict's current mission to canonize his predecessor is another reason Rome won't want to punish the Legion too harshly. "The Legionaries of Christ are going to withstand this [latest] blow," says Elio Masferrer, an expert on the Catholic Church in Latin America at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Rome, he predicts, "will not take any meaningful action" — just as it hasn't, he argues, in widespread clerical sex abuse cases in Ireland and the U.S., despite Benedict's vow to remove the "filth" of sex abusers from the priesthood.

Analysts like Masferrer do believe, however, that the Maciel scandal, especially in the wake of last week's revelations, is having "a devastating impact" on the Catholic Church in Mexico. The Church is already hemorrhaging congregants to Protestant evangelical sects, and it has seen its clout diminish in areas like the capital, Mexico City, where secular leftists recently passed a law permitting gay marriage. "The politicians can say that the Church officials are in no position to give moral lectures," says Masferrer.

While the Legion's website message last week was sympathetic to Lara and her sons, the order made a point of exposing José Raúl González's private demand earlier this year that the Legion pay him $26 million to keep quiet about his father's sexual abuse. The order insists it did not pay, suggesting that as the motive for the tell-all radio interview. Masferrer says the Legion has also circulated reports that Maciel was surrounded by exorcists in his final days, suggesting that his immoral acts were the work of demons and not the priest. That's a Hail Mary ploy at best. And it does little to obscure the fact that it's up to Benedict now to decide whether Padre Maciel's Legion is itself possessed of enough demons to warrant more severe penance.

— With reporting by Ioan Grillo and Dolly Mascareñas / Mexico City

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