What's Wrong with the Legion of Christ?

crime | Feb 26, 2009 | By Cassandra Jones

As people outside and inside the Legionaries of Christ await the release, now delayed since February 24, of their definitive response to their  scandalous founder - Rev. Marcial Maciel, Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien has made known his vision for the order’s future. The bishop of America’s oldest see “cannot in good conscience recommend that anyone join the Legion or Regnum Christi, its affiliated lay movement,” as he told the order’s general director in Rome February 20 and made public yesterday in his archdiocesan newspaper. “It seems to me and many others that [Legionary founder Father Marcial Maciel] was a man with an entrepreneurial genius who, by systematic deception and duplicity, used our faith to manipulate others for his own selfish ends.”

The Legionaries’ coercive spirituality and aversion to transparency is familiar to the Archbishop from the elementary school and family center they have run in his archdiocese and from complaints he has received from parents about secrecy and “heavily persuasive methods on young people.” In addition, O’Brien coordinated the “apostolic visitation” of houses of priestly formation in 2005-6, an investigation of American seminary life, which issued its final report in January.. The Legionary Novitiate and College of Humanities in Cheshire, Connecticut exempted itself and was not visited, though the institution seemed to fall well within the investigation’s mandate. O’Brien considered banning the order from his archdiocese last June.

As if to confirm the Archbishop’s point that “efforts seem to be made to program” Legionaries, spokesman Jim Fair responded to the Archbishop’s remarks by repeating almost verbatim talking points distributed to members some two weeks ago on how to speak about the crisis.

Considering that Maciel has left “many victims in his wake,” Archbishop O’Brien asks for “full disclosure” by the Legionaries of Maciel’s behavior. But this would be new to the Legionaries: they have been in the habit of speaking unrealistically and untruthfully about their Founder since the accusations that he sexually abused some of his seminarians first emerged publicly in 1997. Consider the history:

= After Jason Berry and the late Gerald Renner first reported the accusations of his victims in the Hartford Courant in 1997 and in the book Vows of Silence in 2004, Legionary spokesmen, including then North American territorial director Rev. Anthony Bannon, responded that Maciel had been cleared and reinstated after exhaustive Vatican investigations in 1956-59 and that the false accusations were an attack by surrogate on Pope John Paul. Not true. It turned out that the documentary evidence that underlay the defense was flawed. For one example, the alleged document reinstating Father Maciel was dated October 13, 1958, four days after Pope Pius XII died, a time when regular Vatican business was suspended, and originated from Cardinal Clemente Micara, who as Vicar of Rome lacked requisite authority to act.

=In May 2005, the Legionaries manipulated the media with the help of friends within the Vatican. While the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has jurisdiction to investigate abuse by priests, was right in the middle of conducting an investigation of Maciel, the Legionaries released an ambiguous, unsigned fax from the Vatican Secretariat of State, which did not have jurisdiction, informing Director General Corcuera that “at this time there is no canonical process underway regarding [Father Maciel] nor will one be initiated.” Unwary journalists were misled by this into widely reporting that the Vatican had cleared Maciel. The Legionary National Catholic Register trumpeted “Vatican Exonerates Legion's Founder.” This was not true.

=A year later, in May 2006, the CDF did in fact discipline Maciel, suspending him from public ministry. It was to Pope Benedict’s credit to have investigated and disciplined someone whom his predecessor had privileged, but the wording, “[the CDF] decided - bearing in mind Fr. Maciel's advanced age and his delicate health - to forgo a canonical hearing and to invite the father to a reserved life of penitence and prayer, relinquishing any form of public ministry,” was gentle enough to allow the Legionaries to misrepresent it. Father Kearns wrote in the Register that the discipline was not a discipline: “the Holy See decided not to conduct a canonical trial. Father Maciel is confined to a life of prayer and penance, away from any public ministry. He becomes like an accused priest awaiting trial. Only, in this case, there will be no trial.” Legionary supporter the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus called night day: “It should be noted that
‘penitence’ in this connection does not connote punishment for wrongdoing.” In fact, Father Maciel had been disciplined without trial in a way provided for by Canon Law (canons 1339.1 and 1342.1), though the misleading interpretation was still being perpetuated two weeks ago in the Legionary talking points.

=That summer, Legionaries portrayed Father Maciel as crucified Christ, sheep mute before the shearers, willing to imply by analogy that Pope Benedict was Pontius Pilate. Spokesman Jim Fair was quoted publicly that “he had absolutely no doubt that Fr. Maciel is innocent... and that any statements to the contrary amount to persecution of a holy man -- the kind of persecution Jesus referred to in the Sermon on the Mount when He said, Blessed are those who hate and persecute you for holiness’ sake; you shall see God.”

=The press release from Legionary headquarters from Rome the day of the discipline said: “Facing the accusations made against him, [Maciel] declared his innocence and, following the example of Jesus Christ, decided not to defend himself in any way.” This too was misleading, as Father Maciel, if for the moment pleading nolo contendere, had all along defended himself through surrogates. For one example, the Legionaries in 1996 hired Kirkland & Ellis to threaten Berry, Renner, and the Courant. Then in August 2007 they hired Beirne, Maynard & Parsons to sue ReGain, a web site and message board where former Legionaries networked and freely discussed their concerns, including the charges against Maciel. The suit succeeded in taking the message board down from the web for the time being. This silenced some of Maciel’s under-resourced critics and deprived former Legionaries, whom Archbishop O’Brien has now said sometimes suffer “deep psychological
distress for dependency and need prolonged counseling akin to deprogramming,” from an outstanding resource to find such counseling, empathy, and fellowship.

=When Maciel died in January 2008, the simplicity of the funeral observances brought home that Father Maciel had indeed died under Church discipline: private Mass and burial in his Mexican hometown, no public mourning, no memorial cards, let alone prayer cards for his intercession in heaven. Father Kearns now writes that Maciel “died in disgrace,” but that’s not what Legionaries said at the time. At a memorial Mass in Cheshire, Connecticut, Father Joseph Burtka, the then New York territorial director, told the assembly, “while we used to pray with Nuestro Padre, we will now pray to him since he is in heaven.” The Legionaries spun the simplicity as in keeping with Father Maciel’s wishes – he wanted his Legionaries focused on Christ and not on him and never wanted anything special for himself -- but this was untrue. He had, at some expense, prepared for himself in the Legionary church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Rome a tomb that the
discipline now disallowed him to use.

Archbishop O’Brien now says that “the very basis of the Legion movement should be reviewed from start to finish.” Indeed, the accusations against Maciel personally were never the only criticisms made of the congregation. These too must be accounted for as symptomatic of the Founder’s secret life. O’Brien is asking the Legionaries to deal openly with the many criticisms against them made by former members, other bishops, and families who have found their methodology coercive and harmful.

Legionary charism and religious life has included a fourth vow never to speak ill of a superior and to report on anyone who did. Many say also that Legionary superiors have disrespected the distinction between internal and external forum. (Because seminarians and religious are potentially so vulnerable, canon law requires strict separation between superiors’ knowledge of private matters of conscience in spiritual direction and confession and of
organizational matters of judgment about suitability and assignment of candidates.) Both abuses have reportedly been stopped by Vatican intervention since the 2006 discipline, but it is obvious in retrospect that they were established as Legionary practice to enable a pedophile’s control and self-concealment. So did the Founder’s secret life inform the charism, methodology, and spiritual life of his institute.

O’Brien himself calls attention to the Legion’s manipulative recruitment tactics and poor discernment process. There are also those who have had to escape Legionary houses when the superiors were unwilling to see them go, or those who were required under obedience to surrender passports, or those who felt spiritually blackmailed by the Legionary motto, “Lost vocation, sure damnation.”

Legionary seminarians in the US do not carry health insurance and consequently their health care can be inadequate and based on a superior’s whim. As some former Legionary seminarians have discovered when matriculating at colleges and universities, Legionary seminary academics are simplified and uninterested in contemporary scholarly advances in humanities, philosophy, and theology. Seminarians whose reading is restricted and who are taught critical thinking poorly then fell easier prey to the mindless and uncritical idolizing of their Founder. O’Brien wants scrutiny of Legionary finances. This should include not only the possible embezzlement by the founder, but also the complaints of vendors local to Legionary houses whose bills Legionaries arrogantly refuse to pay or pay with a bouncing check.

O’Brien wishes to be told who Maciel’s enablers were. These would include those who confected the now obviously fraudulent documents on which Maciel’s defense was based in 1997. Most explosively, we may wish to know also whether there are there victims of Maciel who remained within the order, prone then to abuse in their turn. What of those who claim to have been sexually abused in the Legion by priests other than Maciel? Is that so unthinkable now?

O’Brien objects to the “cult of personality” focused on Father Maciel and this raises another difficulty for the Legionaries, who wish, even while disavowing the Founder’s life, to keep his writings as a valid expression of Legionary charism. Father Owen Kearns wrote in the Register even after the disgrace that, “the Holy Spirit speaks to my soul through Father Maciel’s words.” It is hard for outsiders to have read, let alone evaluate, Maciel’s writings. They are not meant to be available to the wider Church, as the Legionaries demonstrated with their lawsuit against ReGain, which claimed his letters, among other materials, “proprietary, … compiled by Legion members, intended only for internal dissemination and discussion.”

But consider these passages from volumes called Envoy, which publish selections of Maciel’s letters recommended as spiritual reading to Legionaries and Regnum Christi members. They demonstrate the problem the Legionaries will have in keeping them as part of their spirituality.

Purity of heart… is so foreign to the licentiousness and cult of sex all around us that it shows clearly you are committed to follow Christ… a great measure of your apostolic fruitfulness depends on it, since to a great degree our possession of God depends on this virtue. (Vitoria 13 August 1959)

We should never lie for any reason whatsoever. It is a mortal sin when God is greatly offended by causing damage against religion, the Church or Authority, or when the name and good reputation of other people is considerably damaged… “Lips that lie are abhorrent to Yahweh” (Proverbs 12:22). (Bermuda 23 February 1962)

If you want to convince others of the value of a certain lifestyle, you will attain little or nothing if you yourself do not demonstrate your personal convictions by your actions. Such is the wisdom of the popular refrain, “Actions speak louder than words.” (Rome 1 November 1991)

These are passages of Maciel that cannot now be read with a straight face let alone serve as spiritual nourishment. Will Legionary novices, as they have in the past, continue to learn the charism from daily study of the many volumes of Cartas de Nuestro Padre? (Can they still call him “Nuestro Padre”?) Can we learn from a hypocrite to hate hypocrisy? By his own words, his impurity, lying, and hypocrisy rendered Maciel’s ministry fruitless and abhorrent to God.

His own words refute the Legionary claim to recognize, in the words of the talking points, the “mystery of how the Holy Spirit can play beautiful melodies on a broken instrument.” And if we must discard some of Maciel’s writings because they have become inconvenient, what is the criterion for choosing and keeping any of them?

Archbishop O’Brien had decided in early 2008 to ban the Legion from Baltimore, but was talked out of it by three Vatican cardinals, he told John Allen last June. The Legion has always caused Church divisions and needed interventions by special Vatican protectors. Cardinal Micara in 1958, who reversed Pope Pius XII’s suspension of Maciel just after he died, was one. Another was Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who, as Vatican Secretary of State, seemingly at least twice impeded Cardinal Ratzinger’s CDF investigation of Maciel in 1999 and 2005.

Legionary minimalist interpretation of the 2006 discipline puts them at odds with Cardinal William Levada, who issued it. Now, Cardinal Franc Rodé, prefect of the Congregation for Religious Life, supports the Legionary claim that, even aside from the Founder’s duplicitous life, the Legionaries maintain a valid charism and a mission in the Church. O’Brien’s call for a review of the Legion “from start to finish” puts him somewhat at odds with Cardinal Rodé, as it will with any whitewash there may be in the forthcoming Legionary statement about their future. O’Brien has encouraged theologians and canon lawyers to continue to ask whether a sociopath can transmit a valid charism to a religious order, or whether a congregation can continue on with a repudiated founder, or whether the Church recognizes a charism for all time when it approves the constitutions of an order.

The Legionaries betrayed Pope John Paul not only in loudly proclaiming his friendship in their defense and then making a fool of him, but more broadly in being oblivious to his philosophic personalism in their seminary formation and spirituality. If the Legionaries want to become disciples of John Paul in spirit and not just in the bureaucratic approval they wangled from him, let them recognize his “personalistic norm,” that human persons are to be respected for their own sakes, not used. Let them undergo “purification of memory” and account for the whole truth of their past, rather than admit to the minimum as circumstances require, grit their teeth, and move on with their putative charism as if nothing had happened. “This is not about orthodoxy. It is about respect for human dignity,” says Archbishop O’Brien.

Cassandra Jones is a pseudonym. The writer has worked for the Legionaries for a number of years.



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