Legions of scandals behind the scandal?

At least 10 years ago, a conservative Catholic friend of mine told me something that totally changed how I viewed this whole era of clergy sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.

Never forget, said this former seminarian, that this is not an issue of right vs. left or left vs. right.

Clergy sexual abuse is taking place across the theological spectrum. Yes, there was a spike in abuse of children, but especially teen-aged boys, soon after Vatican II and that may have had something to do with the fact that many priests left to get married, contributing to the creation of what insiders have called a gay subculture in seminaries. And, yes, the whole liberated atmosphere of the ’60s and ’70s may have played a role.

But those realities hid the larger truth, he said. There were conservative Catholics with dark secrets to hide and they were especially open to blackmail threats. There was also an incentive to enthusiastically preach conservatism, in an era of conservative leaders, while living a secret life that contradicted one’s sermons.

Meanwhile, Catholic liberals might have motives to justify public attacks on the church’s doctrines about sex, but they were not alone in struggling with private sins, he stressed. The scandal transcended left and right.

I thought about that when regular GetReligion reader Julia posted a link to part I of a National Catholic Reporter investigation into the fall of Father Marcial Maciel of Mexico, the founder of the Legion of Christ. This order grew with great gusto, in an era when the number of priests in other orders declined sharply. It gained power and wealth.

Thus, Julia wrote that, while others focus on scandals in Germany and Wisconsin:

The National Catholic Reporter is breaking the big story. Bits of it have been dribbling out for years in the Catholic press and blogs. The expose goes far in explaining why there are folks in the Vatican Curia wanting to take down Benedict. Part II will follow. It’s a very sordid story and Benedict is not the villain.

It is impossible to summarize this giant piece, even the first installment. But it is crucial that Maciel used his clout to find supporters in very high places, including the papal apartment of Msgr. Stanislaw Dziwisz, the Polish secretary of John Paul. Ultimately, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI had seen enough and personally authorized an investigation into Maciel.

How did Maciel use his influence? NCR writes:

The Vatican office with the greatest potential to derail Maciel’s career before 2001 — the year that Ratzinger persuaded John Paul to consolidate authority of abuse investigations in his office — was the Congregation for Religious, which oversaw religious orders such as the Dominicans, Franciscans and Legionaries, among many others. According to two former Legionaries who spent years in Rome, Maciel paid for the renovation of the residence in Rome for the Argentine cardinal who was prefect of religious from 1976 to 1983, the late Eduardo Francisco Pironio. “That’s a pretty big resource,” explains one priest, who said the Legion’s work on the residence was expensive, and widely known at upper levels of the order. “Pironio got his arm twisted to sign the Legion constitution.”

The Legion constitution included the highly controversial Private Vows, by which each Legionary swore never to speak ill of Maciel, or the superiors, and to report to them anyone who uttered criticism. The vows basically rewarded spying as an expression of faith, and cemented the Legionaries’ lockstep obedience to the founder. The vows were Maciel’s way of deflecting scrutiny as a pedophile. But cardinals on the consultors’ board at Congregation for Religious balked on granting approval.

“Therefore, Maciel went to the pope through Msgr. Dziwisz,” said the priest. “Two weeks later Pironio signed it.”

I bring this up for a simple reason. While your GetReligionistas have been writing waves of posts about the New York Times and others making accusations about Pope Benedict XVI, I have been meaning to dig down a later or two in my infamous Folder Of Guilt and write about a recent Los Angeles Times report about the ongoing fallout in Mexico after years of revelations about Maciel.

The top of that story is, well, hellish and, while it connects few dots, it does provide a vivid map of the one corner of the current battlefield:

He hobnobbed with Mexico’s rich and famous, cut lucrative real estate deals and was rumored to travel on occasion with a briefcase full of cash. He fathered at least one child, molested seminarians and boys and is said to have boasted that he had the pope’s permission to get massages from young nuns. And all the while the conservative priest was building one of the most influential organizations in the Roman Catholic Church.

Two years after the death of the Rev. Marcial Maciel, a Mexico native, scandals continue to unfold: Just the other day in Mexico City, two brothers came forward, claiming tearfully that not only was Maciel their father, he had also sexually abused them.

Buffeted by the string of revelations, Maciel’s powerful Legion of Christ is fighting for its survival in Rome, the headquarters of the church. But here in Mexico, where the Legion has long-standing ties with the ruling class and an expansive network of elite schools, the organization remains strong. Rather than the desertions that some branches of the Legion have experienced in the United States and elsewhere, student enrollment in Legionary schools in Mexico grew by 6% to 8% last year, spokesman Javier Bravo said.

The order’s assets are estimated by some to be worth $20 billion. … Today the Legionaries, as they are known, operate in nearly 40 countries with 800 priests, 2,600 seminarians and a lay branch called Regnum Christi (“Christ’s Kingdom”) that has more than 75,000 members.

After years of accusations, the Legionaries finally issued a recent apology for Maciel’s “reprehensible” behavior that said, in part: “Though it causes us consternation, we have to say that these acts did take place.”

What protected Maciel? The Times team stressed that his order was growing during a “time of declining memberships and severe shortages in the clergy — and because it espoused the conservative brand of Catholicism that recent popes have favored.” Conservatives would say that the order was growing BECAUSE of that conservative theology and, thus, represents a betrayal of the doctrinal heart of the church.

This only makes the scandal harder for Catholic leaders to handle, not easier. Suffice it to say that Maciel is no longer considered to be on the highway to sainthood.

It’s true that parts of the Times piece will drive conservative Catholic readers crazy. The Jesuits are the good guys, for example, while the Legionnaires are the bad guys in an epic post-Vatican II battle between rich and poor in Mexico. I think that picture was a bit more complex, at street level.

Still, it’s important that the Los Angeles Times recently covered part of that story — in the mainstream. I didn’t want to let that pass without being mentioned.

Now we can all brace ourselves for the NCR investigation, part II.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.tomdegan.blogspot.com Tom Degan

    In my parish, St. John the Evangelist in Goshen, NY, the first major
    pedophile scandal materialized in the early nineties. The priest in
    question, “Father Ed” had been molesting boys in their early teens. To
    say that the parishioners were traumatized by this would be an
    understatement. They were devastated. Then something wondrous

    Father Ed was eventually replaced by Father Trevor Nichols. Father
    Trevor had been an Anglican in merrie old England when he converted to
    Catholicism. On becoming a Catholic he was transferred to Saint John’s -

    You want to hear the punch line? Our little parish did not implode. The
    sun did not fall from the sky. Huge cracks did not appear in the earth’s
    surface. In fact, it was nice having them. They were – and are to this
    day – deeply beloved by the people of St. John’s.

    Allowing priests to marry would transform the Catholic Church. Having
    Father Trevor, his wife Marian and their two lovely daughters in our
    midst certainly transformed the people of St. John’s.


    Tom Degan

  • Dan Crawford

    What astounds me is the uncritical support of Maciel by the “conservative” Catholic luminaries. I am especially shocked that Neuhaus was completely taken by a pious fraud. The editor of First Things was reputed to have a facility for critical thinking and analysis. What is even more astounding is how John Paul II was duped. Thank God, Ratzinger wasn’t.

  • david clohessy

    The timing of the Legion’s much belated and begrudging ‘apology’ is worth noting: just days before this NCR series was coming out. . .

    David Clohessy, National Director, SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, 7234 Arsenal Street, St. Louis MO 63143, 314 566 9790 cell, SNAPnetwork.org, SNAPclohessy@aol. com

  • dalea

    What struck me in reading the NCR article was the sense that they were laying out how an actual conspiracy worked. If they had simply reported rumors and suspected behavior, it would be very easy to dismiss this as simply another conspiracy theory. Comparing it to Rasputin would be very apt. But here we have an actual conspiracy complete with suggested bribery, vast sums of money floating around, deep secrets and other novel like features.

    Terry says:

    Never forget, said this former seminarian, that this is not an issue or right vs. left or left vs. right.

    I suspect that the first ‘or’ should be an ‘of’ so it would read: an issue of right vs. left…. Spellcheck is not always our friend.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Tom–just as the Orthodox Churches draw the “celibacy” line at the juncture between bishop and priest with priests being allowed to marry BEFORE ordination, now the Catholic Church draws the celibacy line at the juncture between priest and deacon.
    Yet, I know from experience that still today many Catholics–and others–do not realize that the Catholic Church has a married, ordained CLERGY. We are called deacons and can–in the Latin Church– carry out most of the ministries a priest can–including being administrators of parishes. The problem is that some bishops do not want to make use of the married clergy they already have and hire them for full-time ministry in parishes or use deacons to their fullest potential. Deacons are even supposed to, according to Rome, wear Roman collars as a public witness to their identity. But some bishops tell deacons they would prefer that deacons not wear a Roman collar–they might be mistaken for priests.
    In fact, the rise of the Catholic ordained married diaconate as a major component of the Catholic clergy is rarely covered in the MSM (too busy digging for scandals and alleged scandals, I guess).
    Every year we read and hear copious stories about the fall-off in numbers of priests and nuns, but very little on the positive side. The positive side of so many thousands of Catholic men willing to walk in the footsteps of ST. Stephen (the first deacon AND martyr) and many other great deacons of Church History: St. Lawrence, St. Ephrem (a Church Father and Doctor) etc.
    So let’s have patience and see how the Vatican II revival of the diaconate as the married clergy of the Latin Church works out–and in the Catholic Church that can take centuries–a pace that history shows is usually very wise.

  • Jerry

    I liked Michael Gerson’s piece on the scandal for the perspective he brought:

    Many of the current accusations, as I said, are not fair by human standards. But the Christian church, in its varied expressions, is accountable to not merely human standards because it is supposed to be more than a human institution. Apart from the mental, emotional and spiritual harm done to children, this has been the most disturbing aspect of the initial Catholic reaction to the abuse scandal over the past few decades: the reduction of the church to one more self-interested organization. In case after case, church leaders have attempted (and failed) to protect the church from scandal — like a White House trying to contain a bad news story or an oil company avoiding responsibility for a spill.


  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Dude, what is spellcheck in a WordPress world?

    Thanks for the correction.

  • Herb

    It would be worthwhile to look into the Legion’s fund raising tactics. 14 years ago two priests from the Legion visited my mother in law, who was dying from cancer. They sold her an annuity. She collected one payment.

  • Jerry N

    I wonder if Fr. Neuhaus’ pollyanna attitude towards Fr. Maciel was due to the fact that he went to an LCMS, not a Catholic seminary, which in that time would have given him a better Catholic formation than many nominal Catholic seminaries. It would also have made him not as viscerally aware of how bad the situation was. For his snarkiness at times, he seemed to be fundamentally a pretty generous soul. He was still alive when Maciel was told to live a life of penance by BXVI–did he have anything to say about it? I don’t think he defended Maciel after that.

  • kellie

    Herb: I had a fundraising encounter or two with the Legionaries a few years ago that made me think there was something stinko with them. I was a deeply conservative Catholic, impressed by the material I read on the order, so I started sending them small contributions. In return I got slick Madison Ave.-style brochures asking for money, including one with a picture of a prayerful old woman on it that suggested you include them in your will. ‘Would Mother Teresa do this?’ I asked myself. I eventually wrote a letter telling them I was stopping my donations because their methods of raising money worried me. In return I got a phone call offering to send two of their priests out to talk to me. Shaken by their aggressiveness, I said thanks but no thanks. I knew there was something wrong there but never imagined things would turn out as they have. Thank you, God, my gut instincts are still working. Too bad Neuhaus’s and Weigel’s and JPII’s weren’t.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Let’s try to pull this back to journalism and away from straight comments about personalities.

    Several comments spiked….

  • Judy Harrow

    “Open” and “permissive” both seem like loaded words in this context. So let’s just say there was a changed atmosphere after Vatican II. I’m just wondering whether that change led to more actual abuse, or to abuse victims being more willing to come forward, and to people in and out of the hierarchy being more willing to hear them.

  • Jo Flemings

    For the record, many who supported Maciel in the public forum have since retracted their statements and are as shocked and hurt as the rest of us. You absolutely cannot deny the good the Legionaries have done, nor the witness of the very holy and prayerful men in church leadership who, now, we believe were so tragically deceived. The real question is not about a purported conspiracy in which Benedict is the sole hero. (We know who is at the bottom of all of this and like it or not all of us allow ourselves at times to be his tools. … ) Rather WHY DID GOD ALLOW THIS? and what will we do now to save our souls?

  • CV

    To Jerry N:

    Regarding the criticism of the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and his previous support for Maciel and the LOC, I have to wonder how many people really were “vicerally aware of how bad the situation was.”

    Whether abuse is perpetrated on a small scale in a single parish, or on a broad scale such as the massive crime and fraud accomplished by Maciel, one of the common threads is how talented abusers typically are when it comes to covering their tracks and fooling innocent people.

    Fr. Neuhaus was no longer defending Maciel after the truth was brought to light:

    Posted by First Things on June 17, 2008:

    Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore has made public a stiff letter of concern about the activities of the Legion of Christ and its lay affiliate, Regnum Christi, setting out guidelines to be met for its continuing operation in the archdiocese. In the course of his letter he notes the grave charges of sexual abuse made against the founder of the Legion, Fr. Marcial Maciel, which led in May 2006 to the Holy See’s directing him to retire to a life of penitence and prayer. Fr. Maciel died in January of this year. Jason Berry, who has been reporting on priestly sex abuse for many years, is now bringing out a new documentary on Fr. Maciel and the Legion, “Vows of Silence.” Following the action by the Holy See, Fr. Neuhaus wrote this in the Aug-Sep installment of The Public Square: “I do not know all that the CDF and the Holy Father know and am not privy to the considerations that led to their decision. It is reasonable to believe that they concluded that Fr. Maciel did do something very seriously wrong. To censure publicly, toward the end of his life, the founder of a large and growing religious community is an extraordinary, perhaps unprecedented, measure in Catholic history. Moreover, because the only public and actionable charges against Fr. Maciel had to do with sexual abuse, the clear implication is that that was the reason for the censure. In view of the public knowledge of the charges, it is not plausible that he was censured for some other and unknown reason.”

  • http://www.monkwhostolethecow.com Jack Keogh

    I was a legionary from 1962 – 1982, when the congregation was really just getting off the ground. All I can say is that during that time and despite close collaboration with him, I never saw anything to make me suspicious of the awful things we now know about Maciel. I’ve checked with my peers (ex LCs) and they all share this perception. This must sound hard to believe in the light of what we now know. However, that’s why I am forgiving of those who openly defended him before the facts were proven. Was I aware of his flaws and him manipulation before I left? Sure. But I honestly never saw anything nor heard any credible rumor to alert me to what I now know.

    Whatever demons drove the man must have gone into overdrive from the early 1980s onward – maybe the fact that he was allegedly abused as a young child, plus the combination of a narcissistic personality combined with his charisma and the adulation of his followers led him to believe that he was beyond good and evil. May the Lord have mercy on him. His victims are Legion.

    I fear that the legion debacle may be just the tip of the iceberg. The Vatican has never been immune to influence peddling (what government/politician is not?) They still don’t have 21st century management systems in place and their ability to manage public relations is woefully deficient. There remains an underlying clericalism despite the winds of change of Vatican II – something of a tribal mentality, common to many religions, an urge to protect our own against the “world.” In the early days at least Maciel saw the imperative of getting “lay” people more involved. He talked of the “people of God journeying together towards the Father.” The vision seemed right, the implementation obviously wrong. Bottom line, to remedy what ails us we need to move away from the “clerical” model that has plagued our Church. It is no longer enough to blame the Pope, the Bishops and the clergy. If Maciel helps the Church face these huge issues, then he may have served a useful purpose after all. The challenge facing Pope Benedict is one of leadership. May the winds of the Spirit be at his back.

  • Annie

    I will have to agree that the Legionaries were concerned about money. Years ago we began sending them a monthly donation. Two of them came to lunch with us once, and their purpose was to get us to increase our monthly donation. Instead I stopped supporting them. I think of the local Norbertine priests and Others who depend upon the Lord for their donations. Yes, we do get a fund-raising letter once in a blue moon; they are planning to move off unstable property and locate to a more remote area-they are justified in asking donations, but again, very occasionally. I am so happy to support them and the Norbertine Sisters. Any organization, religious or otherwise, that is sending me 2 or 3 letters a week requesting money, I throw the requests in the recycle bin. They are wasting my donations on paper and postage. Only once in almost 30 years have I ever gotten a mention of how donations helped a religious Order (of which I am an Oblate) replace old equipment in their monastery. Their Faith knows no bounds, and they get my support frequently, without asking.

  • Gerry

    I appreciate your position that this is no isolated incident causing this uproar and that its not limited to the US. The extent of the ties, collaboration and structures of organized defensive efforts bring up a sense of horror in us who have been faithful to a time honored religion unwilling to come to terms with itself.