AP discerns what Vatican knew in Maciel scandal

AP discerns what Vatican knew in Maciel scandal December 15, 2013

While it’s certainly the function of a reporter to puzzle out the essence of a story based on the available evidence, there are occasions when journalists choose to act as if they have nearly paranormal abilities to discern things not immediate visible to the naked eye. This is called analysis or even editorializing.

Consider the Associated Press report— actually this appears to be a news analysis — concerning the challenges facing Pope Francis concerning the Legionnaires of Christ, a Catholic order beset by numerous problems, most of which centered around the group’s late founder:

VATICAN CITY — First, one of the Legion of Christ’s top officials abruptly quit the troubled religious order in frustration over the slow pace of change. Then priests in the cult-like movement empowered proteges and associates of the order’s disgraced founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, to vote for their next leader.

The past month has seen some setbacks in the Legion’s efforts to rehabilitate itself as it moves toward electing a new leadership next month, the culmination of a three-year Vatican experiment aimed at overhauling a damaged order. Yet even as the Legion prepares to present a new face, high-ranking members continue to speak nostalgically and even reverently of Maciel — a sexual predator who molested his seminarians, fathered three children and was, in the words of Vatican-appointed investigators, “devoid of scruples and authentic religious meaning.”

It’s the next paragraph that gave me, well, agita:

Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, took over the Legion in 2010 and appointed a Vatican cardinal to govern it after investigators determined that the congregation itself needed to be “purified” of Maciel’s influence. In reality, the Vatican knew well of Maciel’s crimes for decades but turned a blind eye, impressed instead by his ability to bring millions of dollars and thousands of seminarians into the church.

The entire Vatican? Really?

And for decades?

Let’s think journalism for a moment here. Where’s the source for this insight, AP?

Who can (or did) verify these assertions? I’m not saying the assertions aren’t true, but as a reporter, I’d want to have someevidence to go along with the statement. Wouldn’t you? The rest of the story is rather straightforward and, frankly, a bit of an indictment of the whole thing. Some members of the order still apparently revere Maciel despite his apparent depravity, something that dismays several who’ve left the order:

The Rev. Thomas Berg, an American priest who left the Legion in 2009, said such nostalgia shows that a considerable portion of the Legion membership is still unable to shake itself from Maciel’s toxic influence.

“The continual resurgence in private and public of the story-line that Macial is a ‘flawed instrument,’ but an instrument of God no less, is proof in the pudding that the purification has not gone deep enough,” he said.

Other indications include the roster of men who will elect the next superior: They include 19 existing superiors and 42 priests elected by the Legionary membership to represent them. The existing superiors include many of the top Legion priests who were close to Maciel and his successor. Electors chosen by the rank and file to represent them include Maciel proteges or still other associates. One recently was forced to explain a bizarre correspondence with a woman under his spiritual guidance.

“With so much of the old guard, so many men who Maciel put in as superiors, and younger priests formed under their influence and supervision, there is no hope of serious reform,” said Glenn Favreau, who left the Legion in 1997 before being ordained a priest and later co-founded ReGain, an online community for former Legion priests that was sued by the Legion after parts of the order’s constitutions were posted on an Internet message board.

This is a complicated, many-layered story that will continue to occupy news space for months, if not years, to come. While I appreciate the large number of details and comments the AP was able to assemble, making crucial assertions of fact without support might cause readers to question the rest of the reporting.

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4 responses to “AP discerns what Vatican knew in Maciel scandal”

  1. I’m curious about how the order is trying to “reform itself” when external intervention has occurred. I’m curious about the “bizarre correspondence” between a woman and her spiritual director. The writer used some form of “cult-like” several times without explaining it. I’m curious what he meant.

    FWIW, here is one canon lawyer’s take on the situation. Did such a voice (maybe with a contrary opinion) belong in the story?


  2. You’re right, the whole Vatican doesn’t account for the practicing catholics who keep handing them their kids as if Jesus Himself did not say:

    “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

    Ye shall know them by their fruits.”

  3. The use of the term “cult like” just makes my blood cringe. Cult as used here is an attack term which should have no place in responsible journalism. It is used by all sorts of groups to marginalize other groups, and I do not think it should ever be used by a journalist. It is an attack word we should abandon.