MEXICO CITY – The Vatican on Saturday ordered the overhaul of one of the Catholic Church’s largest and most influential organizations following an investigation into decades of sexual abuse by the group’s founder and systematic efforts to cover it up.
The Rev. Marcial Maciel, Mexican-born, engaged in “very serious and objectively immoral behavior,” the Vatican said – including fathering at least one child and sexually molesting boys and seminarians. The abuse dates to the 1950s and continued into the 1990s, years in which Maciel led a double life, protected by silence and obedience and his ability to sideline his accusers.
Maciel, who died in 2008 at 87, founded the ultra-conservative Legion of Christ order in Mexico in 1941.
In a lengthy and sternly worded statement, the Vatican said Saturday that Pope Benedict XVI will appoint a special envoy and a commission to oversee the “purification” of the order and the “re-definition” of its secretive, militaristic culture. Actions taken by the current Legion leadership will be scrutinized; but no specific sanctions were mentioned – amid widespread suspicion that at least some of the current leaders must have been aware of Maciel’s sins.
Saturday’s announcement follows an investigation in which a team of bishops fanned out across the globe on Benedict’s command. The process is called an “apostolic visitation,” and in this case the bishops interviewed more than 1,000 Legionaries and reviewed scores of documents. They reported to the Holy See Friday and Saturday.
How the Vatican handles the Legion case has been watched closely as sexual abuse scandals erupt across Europe and other parts of the world. Benedict and other church leaders have been accused by victims and their advocates of failing to act with enough vigor to stop abuse and punish offending clergy.
Allegations had dogged Maciel for decades. But he was able to easily deflect them, branding his accusers as slandering liars and receiving unflagging support from the church hierarchy. Among his most devoted supporters was Pope John Paul II, who admired Maciel because of his conservative fealty to doctrine and his ability to raise money and recruit priests.
Maciel “skillfully managed to build up an alibi to gain the trust, confidence and surrounding silence, and strengthen his role as charismatic founder,” the Vatican said. Living “a life devoid of scruples and of genuine religious feeling,” the statement continued, Maciel “created around himself a defense mechanism that made him untouchable for a long time.”
Benedict’s decision to restructure the Legion is far short of disbanding the organization, as some critics had demanded. The Vatican noted the “religious zeal” of rank-and-file Legionaries as something to be preserved.
A statement on the Legionaries’ website said they “thank the Holy Father and embrace his provisions with faith and obedience.”