The Reform of the Legionaries of Christ

The May 1 Vatican communiqué in response to the Apostolic Visitation of the Legionaries of Christ was a powerful indication of Pope Benedict’s resolve to clean what he  described in his 2005 meditations for the Way of the Cross as the “filth there is in the church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him.”

If there were ever an archetype to embody the filth that can corrupt the life of a priest called to holiness, it would be the founder of the Legionaries, Fr. Marcial Maciel. Revered throughout his life by Legionaries as a living saint, he has been shown posthumously to have lived, as the communiqué starkly stated “a life devoid of scruple and of genuine religious sentiment” in which he engaged in “very serious and objectively immoral behavior” and “actual crimes.” The flood of facts is still coming out about the extent and duration of his perfidies, but it now seems clear that using his sacred office and his powerful personality to do evil was part of his life from at least the 1950s. It was in the 1950s that he began to molest teenage seminarians entrusted to his care; when several were understandably shaken by having participated in something dirty against their vocation to chastity, Fr. Maciel incredibly told them he had the permission of St. Pius X to engage in such behavior to address some urological issues, and then he would sacrilegiously give them absolution. Later, pretending to be a businessman — in other words, living multiple lies — he started lengthy affairs with at least two women, far younger than he, one in Spain and another in Mexico, and with whom he fathered several children. One of his Mexican biological sons is now saying he began to abuse him sexually around the time he was eight. Taken as a whole, we can say that Fr. Marcial Maciel was the very antithesis of Christian chastity, veracity and integrity.

How could he get away with this for so long? The Vatican statement noted, first, that he created a “system of relationships” that allowed him to keep up the massive con game. He “skillfully managed to build up alibis, [and] to gain the truth, confidence and silence of those around him” as a means to continue to fool the “great majority of Legionaries” and so many others. The Vatican statement noted that there was the “lamentable discrediting and dismissal of whoever doubted the correctness of his behavior.” Those who raised questions were shown the door, guilty of having violated a fourth vow that prevented their criticizing their religious superiors (a vow that Pope Benedict rescinded soon into his papacy). The second reason why he was able to get away with it, the statement implies, is because those who suspected that something was awry — both inside and outside the Legionaries — had “the misguided conviction of not wanting to harm the good the Legion was doing” by exposing any scandal. Third, as some recent reports have demonstrated, Fr. Maciel often lavishly showered the affection of his order as well as expensive gifts and prestige on those in positions of responsibility in the Vatican. When he was accused of acts of sexual abuse, both in the 1950s and in the 1990s, some of the recipients of this generosity proved to be among Fr. Maciel’s greatest defenders. There are no accusations that any of Maciel’s powerful Vatican protectors knew they were protecting someone who had made an art form of concealing his wicked behavior; it is likely that they just thought they were protecting a friend who had done a great deal of good in the Church and whose personal reputation was being attacked because of his personal and the Legionaries’ institutional fidelity. The good fruit in the quantity and quality of vocations, the communiqué stated, “led many people to believe that the allegations … could not have been anything other than calumnies.” All of this created “a defense mechanism around Fr. Maciel that rendered him untouchable for a long time and made it very difficult to know his real life.”

One Vatican figure who the evidence shows was impervious to Fr. Maciel’s charm and gifts was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Former Legionaries have told reporters that he refused the lavish “thank yous” that were customary for the Legionaries to give visiting prelates. He had tried to begin an investigation of accusations of the sexual abuse of seminarians in the late 1990s until it seems to have been shut down by protectors in the Vatican Secretariat of State for being imprudent. In 2004, however, he sent his top investigator at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to investigate the charges. Soon after becoming Pope Benedict XVI, having received the report of the investigation, he forced Fr. Maciel to take up a life of prayer and penance, a sign that was interpreted by all intelligent observers as a public disgrace and as an admission on the part of the Vatican and Fr. Maciel that the accusations against him had merit. In 2009, Pope Benedict, knowing that Fr. Maciel had built a system around him to protect him, ordered an apostolic visitation of the Legionaries, to be able to determine what consequences his behavior has had on the structure of the Legionaries as a whole, and whether, if there were consequences, the good could be separated from the evil and the whole congregation salvaged.

“The apostolic visit,” the communiqué taciturnly stated, “was able to ascertain that the behavior of Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado has had serious consequences for the life and structure of the Legion, such as to require a process of in-depth revision.”

The first step in that revision concerns the leadership. In stating that “most of the Legionaries were unaware of his life” and show “sincere zeal,” the statement implies that some Legionaries were aware of his life and may not be marked above all by a desire for truth and holiness. This seems to apply most clearly to Fr. Maciel’s closest collaborators, who are still in charge of the Legionaries. It strains credulity to believe that they did not suspect or know what Fr. Maciel was doing; if they didn’t, it would demonstrate that they’re outright incompetent to serve in such offices. Even after they claim they first became aware of their founder’s hypocrisy, they continued to allow their fellow Legionaries and members of Regnum Christi to believe the lie that their founder was a holy priest suffering unjustly out of love for the Church. To address the situation of leadership in the Legionaries, Pope Benedict will appoint a delegate to assume control of the Legionaries and seek to implement the reform. There will be a thorough review of the exercise of authority in the Legionaries, where various practices have been allowed that are against canon law, like the fourth vow noted above or superiors’ hearing the confessions of those entrusted to them. Legionaries were formed in a notion of religious obedience that made them particularly vulnerable to manipulation of their consciences by their superiors. This needs to be addressed at its roots.

The second step involves a revision of the constitutions and a clarification of the Legionaries’ charism. The third step involves a visitation of its associated apostolic movement Regnum Christi.  

The reform of the Legionaries is something that must concern the whole Church. Not only is it an instance of the Church’s will to root out priests who harm others and reform structures that abet them, but the sheer size of the Legionaries (800 priests, 2,500 seminarians) and Regnum Christi (hundreds of consecrated women and 70,000 committed lay people) makes trying to save what is good imperative. The communiqué stated that the Pope encouraged Legionaries and Regnum Christi members “not to lose sight of the fact that their vocation, sprung from the call of Christ and inspired by the ideal of being witnesses of his love to the world, is an authentic gift from God, a treasure for the Church, the indestructible foundation on which to build their personal future and that of the Legion.” The Church wants to nourish and protect the divine gift of so many vocations committed to seeking to bring Christ’s kingdom to the world. The process of cleansing has begun. We should all pray that it be done thoroughly, so that these vocations can flourish in a structure, and under superiors, worthy of the gift of their vocations.

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About the Author

Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations. He is the former pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River, Massachusetts and St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

After receiving a biology degree from Harvard College, he studied for the priesthood in Maryland, Toronto and for several years in Rome. After being ordained a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Fall River by Bishop Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap. on June 26, 1999, he returned to Rome to complete graduate work in Moral Theology and Bioethics at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family.

Fr. Landry writes for many Catholic publications, including a weekly column for The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, for which he was the executive editor and editorial writer from 2005-2012. He regularly leads pilgrimages to Rome, the Holy Land, Christian Europe and other sacred destinations and preaches several retreats a year for priests, seminarians, religious and lay faithful. He speaks widely on the thought of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, especially John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. He was an on-site commentator for EWTN’s coverage of the 2013 papal conclave that elected Pope Francis, appears often on various Catholic radio programs, and is national chaplain for Catholic Voices USA.

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