Catholic Order Admits Its Founder Abused Boys Over Decades
By RACHEL DONADIO
Published: March 26, 2010
ROME — A powerful Roman Catholic religious order acknowledged in a statement on Friday that its founder, a close ally of the late Pope John Paul II, molested seminarians and fathered several children, and it expressed “sorrow and grief” to anyone “damaged by our founder’s actions.”
The statement was the first official admission by the Legionaries of Christ that its charismatic Mexican founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, who died in 2008, was responsible for many “grave acts.” Around two dozen people had claimed that Father Maciel’s molesting of boys continued for decades.
The statement was viewed as an important development because Father Maciel was a beloved friend of Pope John Paul, and the accusations of abuse against him were vetted personally by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. The order’s account of the scandal surrounding its founder comes ahead of the recommendations of a recently completed apostolic visitation, a high-level Vatican inquiry, which is expected to render a harsh verdict about Father Maciel, experts said.
The Vatican has also been forced to grapple with a new wave of abuse cases in Europe, including a number in the pope’s home country, Germany, where he has come under scrutiny for his handling of a pedophile priest in 1980, when he was an archbishop in Munich.
For years, the Vatican ignored complaints against Father Maciel, who enjoyed a strong cult of personality. But in 2004 Cardinal Ratzinger reopened a stalled investigation into the order when he was the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, sending a Vatican official to interview Legionaries and accusers of Father Maciel worldwide.
The Legionaries’ statement offered no concrete changes to the management or traditions of the order, but in a rare case of a religious order disavowing its founder, it said, “We accept and regret that, given the gravity of his faults, we cannot take his person as a model of Christian or priestly life.”
The statement continued, “We had thought and hoped that the accusations brought against our founder were false and unfounded, since they conflicted with our experience of him personally and his work.”
Observers said the statement seemed to pave the way for the Vatican to take strong action to discipline the Legionaries. Last week, a team of Vatican investigators presented the results of its yearlong inquiry to the communities, seminaries and schools of the group and its lay order, Regnum Christi.
The results remain secret. Father Maciel was never defrocked, but he was ordered by the Vatican in 2006 to live in seclusion.
George Weigel, a Vatican expert and biographer of Pope John Paul, called the Legionaries’ statement “very significant” because it spelled out that Father Maciel could no longer be a model for the organization, and because “this is being done because Joseph Ratzinger insisted on getting to the bottom of the controversy.” Mr. Weigel said he hoped it paved the way for the “refoundation” of the order.
The Rev. Thomas Berg, a former Legionaries priest who has begun the process of joining the Archdiocese of New York, said the statement left a number of questions unaddressed.
“What about the irresponsibility of current superiors in misleading members and Regnum Christi for several years when these things were known?” Father Berg asked.
But he added: “The big gaping hole in the Legion right now is there’s no founder. It’s been decapitated.”
The Legionaries’ spokesman in the United States, Jim Fair, said he could not speculate on the concrete results of the Vatican investigation, including who would lead the organization or whether Father Maciel’s books would still be taught in formation courses.
“We’ll all have to wait for the indications of the Holy See,” Mr. Fair said in an e-mail message.
Juan Vaca, 73, who was sexually abused by Father Maciel in Mexico when he was 10 and for years tried to get the Vatican to investigate Father Maciel, said he was disappointed by the statement. “It’s very tepid, very general, nothing new,” he said.
Mr. Vaca, who left the Legionaries in the 1970s and is now a professor of psychology at Mercy College on Long Island, said, “They have to amend all these errors and mistakes by facts and actions, not words and promises.”
He said he did not expect much from the apostolic delegation. “They are communicating in secrecy,” he said, “and they will get everything under secrecy.”
In Mexico, the order reaches the upper echelons of business, the church and government, and for most of his life, Father Maciel was treated as something of a saint. The Legionaries’ acknowledgment that he had fathered at least three children out of wedlock and molested several boys, confirming the worst accusations and long-held suspicions among many Catholics there, seriously damaged the order’s reputation.
Elio Masferrer, a Mexican scholar who heads the Latin American Association for the Study of Religions, said the statement, with its vague plea for forgiveness, still did not address the damages done to victims by Father Maciel, or the civil crimes he committed.
“They think of the sexually abused as if they were people in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Mr. Masferrer said. “The strategy is not to forgive the sinner; it is to protect the sinner.”
Mr. Fair, the spokesman for the order, said the statement had not gone into detail about possible crimes committed by Father Maciel in order to protect the privacy of the victims. He also said that the timing of the statement was not connected to the Vatican’s investigation.
Laurie Goodstein contributed reporting from New York, and James C. McKinley Jr. from Houston.