A few people have asked me about how I dealt with the Marcial Maciel case. How did I deal with it and how is the Legion now? I can’t speak for the whole Legion, but I can speak for myself. I also found a fellow Legionary who wrote on Facebook and Instagram about his experience. Hopefully, these two stories might help Catholics today struggling with the sexual scandals in the US Church. They might give some of you hope.
Fr. Jason Smith, LC
Simcha Fisher’s article: “Dear Priests, I Am Begging You to Speak about This Scandal” inspired me to write a few thoughts. The news has sickened me as I am sure it has sickened you. The details of the abuse and cover-up is heart wrenching and I don’t even know where to begin, except to say that I can think of few actions more twisted than the horrid sin of sexual abuse. Abuse and cover-up in the priesthood is something that hits close to home for me through the founder of my religious order, the Legionaries of Christ.
While I personally never experienced any direct abuse, I was left with the confusion, sorrow, shaking of faith, and loss of trust that comes from the betrayal of a priest who I had once admired. During that tumultuous time I learned many valuable lessons. I share two of them here as they may be of help for at least one person amid the scandal. The first lesson I learned is never to put anyone, no matter how seemingly good or even holy, on a pedestal. It is Jesus who I love and it is Jesus who I follow in an imperfect and sinful Church much in need of reform.
I try to keep this distinction between people, especially those who represent God, and Jesus clear. Their sins and their weaknesses are their own, not God’s. I have found this conviction helpful in keeping my faith strong when I find that someone I respected had moments more like Judas than Jesus.
The second lesson I’ll write about here is that the Lord truly does heal. By God’s grace, as I was reeling and hurting because of the sins of our founder, I unexpectedly found renewed ardor and freedom in my priesthood and my religious vocation. This happened by wrestling with the experiences and emotions I had through Ignatian prayer, guided by Scripture and the Eucharist.
Gradually our Lord led me to a point where I had profound peace and a deep conviction that Jesus’ healing power is greater than any sin, no matter how depraved. He truly heals. His grace is there, ready to heal all who have been wounded by life, and yes, those wounded by people in his church. Dear Jesus, please pour out your healing grace upon all those hurting, we are so in need of it today.
Fr. Matthew P. Schneider, LC
For me, I want to give a little timeline then explain the spiritual side.
I joined the Legion in 2001. In 2005, Maciel was ordered to live a life of prayer and penance but many people I trusted defended him so I thought it was just where there was an accusation, and it was easier to ask a semi-retired man to be fully retired rather than disprove it. In hindsight, I was wrong in these cases. I apologize to all those hurt by this misinformation.In 2009, when it was announced he fathered a child, within seconds I knew the other cases were likely true. The other cases revolved around two contrary testimonies, and we’d accepted Maciel’s based on the fact we considered him to be of excellent virtue. If he fathered a child, his testimony in such cases no longer carried much weight. The combined testimony of the victims clearly outweighed Maciel’s. At the time there were a lot of positions and some pretty intense debates. Some stayed, some left. I don’t judge anyone for their positions at the time or subsequent decisions. The Vatican declared a few years later, “The very grave and objectively immoral actions of Father Maciel, confirmed by incontrovertible testimonies, in some cases constitute real crimes and manifest a life devoid of scruples and authentic religious meaning.”
Nonetheless, I made my perpetual vows six months after the 2009 revelations.
“Why?” you might ask. For me, I knew from the very beginning that my commitment was to Jesus, not Maciel. I knew many great Legionaries who I trusted. I trusted the Church to guide us through, one way or the other: speaking with Archbishop Chaput during the Legion’s visitation reaffirmed this. And I knew God was calling me to be a priest and a religious. Canon law (684-685) allows perpetually religious to switch communities for serious reasons. I figured if the Legion disappeared or lost its way, that would suffice as a serious reason and I could switch to another community. This was my way of trusting the Church even in the most extreme circumstances.
This experience has taught me some lessons. One is to look for other examples of the priesthood who are already dead and don’t have a scandal associated with them. You may notice I usually include my middle initial – “P.” – in my name online rather than just doing first and last name, or first, middle and last name. This is in homage and in imitation of the man I take as my #1 model for priesthood, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen who used his middle initial but not full middle name. (For the record, my dad’s name is Paul so that’s my middle name.)
Another lesson is the truth of a phrase regarding management that Fr. Juan Sabadell, LC, taught me when I worked with him over a decade ago: “Trust God, verify everything else.” (The Vatican appointed Fr Sabadell to the General Council of the Legion in 2014.) The more I hear about different scandals in the Church, the more I realize we all have to be cautious, not credulous.
As we Catholics face challenges with sexual scandals in the Church – whether abuse cases, or possible homosexual networks – we need to remember that the Church relies on Jesus, not any priest or bishop. When we have our hope firmly planted in Jesus, we know the Church will endure and problems will be resolved. We just don’t know how or when. In 2009, I had no idea what would happen to the Legion but 9 years later, I have a better idea where we’re going. Sacred Heart of Jesus, I trust in you.