What will happen now to the Legionaries of Christ? That is the question in Rome following the news in early February that the Legion’s founder, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado (1920-2008) had lived a “double life” for many years, keeping a mistress, perhaps using Legionary funds to support her, and fathering a daughter now reportedly 22 years old. With this news, which was received with shock by many in the order, there are many who think the Legion cannot, and should not, survive.
The Legion’s leadership is now seeking to distance the Legion from its founder, but with great caution, knowing there has never been an order in the history of the Church that survived after repudiating its founder. At the same time, from outside the Legion, calls are multiplying for Pope Benedict XVI to take decisive action, perhaps even to suppress the order, to preserve whatever of good there is in it from destruction.
As this issue went to press, it was not yet clear what Benedict would do.
In 2006, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on May 19, after an investigation into the charges of sexual abuse made against Fr. Maciel by about 20 former seminarians, invited Fr. Maciel to retire to a life of “prayer and penitence” and not carry out his ministry in public. The accusations that Fr. Maciel had sexually abused seminarians first became public in 1997 in a report in The Hartford (Connecticut) Courant daily newspaper. In a letter to the paper, Fr. Maciel denied the allegations, saying: “In all cases they are defamations and falsities with no foundation whatsoever.”
But in 2006 Fr. Maciel stepped down and went into seclusion until his death in 2008.
Now, the Legion has admitted that Fr. Maciel had a mistress, fathered a child and led a double life.
In an undated letter to the members of Regnum Christi, the Legion of Christ’s lay order, Fr. Alvaro Corcuera, Fr. Maciel’s successor at the head of the Legion, focused on the positive. Speaking of Fr. Maciel, Fr. Corcuera wrote: “On a personal level, I am grateful to him for being the instrument God used to give my entire life meaning. It is also true that he was a man, and these things that have hurt and surprised us — and I don’t believe we can explain with our reason alone —have already been judged by God. For my part, I ask forgiveness for all this suffering. And I beg God with all my being to help us all to see it from the heart of Christ.”
Father Paolo Scarafoni, spokesman at the Legionaries’ headquarters in Rome, said on February 4 that, despite the failures and flaws of Fr. Maciel, members of the order are grateful to him for having founded the order and its various ministries.
Fr. Maciel founded the Legionaries of Christ in his native Mexico in 1941. Fr Scarafoni said the Legionaries have 3,250 male members, of whom 850 are priests; about 1,000 consecrated women; and about 60,000 members of Regnum Christi, the lay branch.
Asked how the Legionaries came to know about Fr. Maciel’s daughter, Fr. Scarafoni said, “Frankly, I cannot say and it is not opportune to discuss this further.”
A spokesman for the Legionaries of Christ in the US acknowledged that some aspects of Fr. Maciel’s life “were not appropriate” for a priest. “We have learned some things about our founder’s life that are surprising and hard to understand,” Jim Fair, the order’s US spokesman, said February 4. Fair declined further comment on the activities of Fr. Maciel, saying only that Fr. Maciel now “stands before God’s judgment and mercy.”
Fair denied rumors that the Legionaries would renounce Fr. Maciel, saying he will always be considered the order’s founder. “It’s one of the mysteries of our faith, that someone can have tremendous flaws but yet the Holy Spirit can work through them,” he said. But in Rome and around the world, many are saying the Legion must renounce Fr. Maciel, and perhaps be dissolved altogether.
Dr. Edward Peters, an American lay canon lawyer who holds the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, in a February essay published on his web blog, has called on Rome to “take control of the Legion crisis.”
“The immediate questions here are simple,” Peters writes. “Did Maciel sire one or more children with one or more women while he was running the Legion? Did Maciel take money donated to the Legion (afoul of 1983 Code of Canon Law 1267 for starters) to pay off mistresses or to make child-support payments? Who in the Legion knew of or suspected Maciel’s sexual liaison(s)? And who in the Legion abetted such payoffs as might have been made? If the answers to these questions in turn lead to discoveries of additional canonical or civil misconduct by Maciel and others, and they very well might, so be it.”
Peters then adds: “Based on everything I’ve seen so far, I do not think Legion leadership is able to conduct the kind of investigation that is necessary here, and at this point the credibility of any Legion-led inquiry would be near zero. In my opinion, the best thing for the Legion to do is to ask the Pope for an independent investigation, ‘a visitation,’ by two, at most three, prelates who really know how to get hard answers to embarrassing questions, who can see through financial obfuscations and moral rationalizing, and who are not afraid to confront ingrained, systemic denial behaviors. “If the Legion does not ask for such an investigation, Rome should impose one without its consent. Quickly. “One thing is sure: Rome’s handling of this crisis will itself be subject to evaluation in the public arena, so it had better be effective, and be seen to be effective.”
Dr. Germain Grisez, one of America’s most respected Catholic moral theologians, the Flynn Professor of Christian Ethics at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, on February 5 wrote an “open letter” to the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi.
He suggested the Legion be dissolved and that Legionaries either join other religious orders already in existence or establish an entirely new order with a new name.
“Everyone realizes that Fr. Maciel’s double life required the complicity of associates, some of whom surely are still members of the institute, and some of whom probably are functioning as superiors. Unless those who shared in the betrayal are identified and faithful Legionaries cleanly separate from them, the latter group’s common good will not continue receiving the support of faithful Catholics, and will not be preserved...
Regardless of Fr. Maciel’s subjective moral responsibility — which only God knows — the evidence of his objective betrayal of his commitment makes it impossible for you and other good and faithful Legionaries any longer to carry on your service and life as cooperation with him. Unless you and your confreres proceed as quickly as possible to terminate the juridical person, the Legionaries of Christ, and reorganize yourselves into a new institute, the common good you now share will begin to decompose: very few new men will join you, many in formation will leave, some professed members will separate, and the collaboration and support of the lay faithful will shrink.
“The Pope is the ultimate superior on earth of every religious institute. Only the Pope can oversee the termination of the Legionaries of Christ, the salvaging of its faithful members and other assets, and their reconstitution into a new institute.
“Therefore, if I were you, I would at once appeal to the Pope to fulfill his responsibility toward you, to appoint two or three prelates — members neither of the Legionaries nor of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life — as an ad hoc papal commission to conduct a thorough visitation, identify those complicit in Father Maciel’s wrongdoing and its concealment until now, and work closely with faithful, professed members in carrying out an orderly termination of the existing Institute, election of a small group to serve as founders of its replacement, and the preparation of an entirely new and reformed body of particular law for the new institute.
“Some of your good and faithful confreres undoubtedly will tell you that following my advice would violate your vow of obedience and constitute grave disloyalty to your superiors.
“Those sincere men will be mistaken. Your vow is to obey morally acceptable precepts. In the present disaster, it is, in my judgment, your grave moral duty to appeal to the Pope, as your superior, to save the common good of the faithful members of the Legionaries of Christ by terminating the present juridical person, and seeing to the formation of a new institute.
“I am sure that most who were complicit in Father Maciel’s wrongdoing were constrained by a false sense of loyalty. Do not follow their bad and disastrous example. Remember instead your responsibility to Jesus and to his Church — to all those whose souls are still to be saved by your service and that of the members of the new foundation.”
George Weigel, biographer of Pope John Paul II and senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies, in a February article entitled “Saving What Can Be Saved,” said Pope Benedict needs to take a direct interest in the matter, and not leave it to to his curia.
Weigel called for a “root-and-branch” audit of “possible complicity” with Fr. Maciel’s actions “within the Legion of Christ.”
He then issued this call: “That audit cannot be conducted by the Legion leadership... It must be mandated by the Pope, and it must be conducted by someone responsible to the Pope alone—not responsible to the relevant parts of the Vatican bureaucracy, not responsible to the Cardinal secretary of state, but responsible to the Pope alone. There is simply no other way open to an accounting that will be both scrupulously honest and publicly credible...
“The Legion of Christ must be immediately put into receivership: A personal delegate, appointed by the Pope, must be empowered to take over the governance of the Legion of Christ and to conduct the moral and institutional audit required. The papal delegate would be instructed to report his findings, both interim and final, to the Pope alone, and he would be instructed to make recommendations (again, to the Pope alone) addressing the possible futures, including dissolution or dissolution-and-reconstitution, of the Legion.”
Robert Moynihan Ph.D. is editor of Inside the Vatican magazine.