'Vows of Silence' is timely viewing for Catholics

crime | Feb 26, 2009 | By Cassandra Jones

Vows of Silence, a 2008 documentary video produced and directed by Jason Berry (see film website) and based on part of the 2004 book of the same title he co-authored with the late Gerald Renner, makes all the more interesting viewing now that the Legionaries of Christ have apparently admitted to the truth of its charges against their founder, Father Marcial Maciel. The film tells the story of a group of boys whom Maciel recruited into his new religious order and in time sexually abused and how forty years later the Church judiciary would not give them a hearing. The stakes had become enormous: the incident was a chapter in the larger abuse scandal in the Church and Pope John Paul himself had become Maciel’s patron and protector.

The documentary outlines the book’s story with interviews, pictures, and fascinating archival footage (the book had no photos). Young Mexican Maciel, expelled repeatedly from seminaries for reasons never made known is privately educated and ordained by a bishop uncle. In 1941, at age 21, inspired in part by the Cristero uprising against the anti-Catholic government of Mexico in which members of his extended family had played an important part, founds a militant religious order, the Legionaries of Christ. He proves a genius at fundraising, recruiting, and movement building, and eventually wins over John Paul who cannot do without his apostolic works in Latin America.

A group of nine Mexicans and Spaniards, former Legionaries, were appalled; seminarians from ages 10 – 14 in the late 1940s and 50s, they began forty years later to claim that Maciel abused them habitually, required them to procure the morphine he was addicted to, and then absolved them in confession. The Vatican in the late 1950s had suspended and investigated Maciel. He had then been reinstated, though, as it seems, irregularly, by his supporter Cardinal Clemente Micara, Vicar of Rome, who lacked requisite authority and did so in the interregnum after the death of Pius XII, a time when regular Vatican business is suspended. In any event, Maciel’s seminarians had not testified truthfully to Vatican investigators, silenced by the “fourth vow” that Maciel imposed on Legionaries never to criticize him. Galled by John Paul’s honoring of Maciel, the accusers decide to go public, retain a canon lawyer, and bring charges against Maciel in
ecclesiastical court. Berry and Renner break their story in the Hartford Courant in February 1997. Maciel declares his innocence. Vatican court refuses them a hearing in December 1999.

Future pope Josef Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department with responsibility to investigate abuse by priests, may have slapped the hand of Brian Ross on an April 2002 episode of ABC’s 20/20 and said petulantly in German-accented English, “Come to me when the moment is given. Not, not yet.” But the moment was given in December 2004 and the documentary takes the story beyond where the book leaves off.

John Paul II has four months to live when Ratzinger assigns a staff canon lawyer Msgr. Charles Scicluna to reopen the CDF’s investigation, which hears some 30 witnesses against Maciel in Mexico City. Archbishop William Levada succeeds Ratzinger as head of the CDF and in May 2006, concluding the Scicluna investigation, disciplines and suspends Maciel from public ministry. The Vatican abolishes the fourth vow in 2007. Maciel dies in January 2008.

No film can adequately represent a copious book. Those who see the 60 minute documentary instead of reading the book Vows of Silence will miss interesting material, such as how Maciel once staged himself getting shot at for the benefit of potential donors he was trying to impress, which suggests Maciel’s genius as a self-promoter or, more sadly, how he himself was abused as a child by hands on his father’s ranch, a plausible origin for the abuse he would himself perpetuate. But a documentary can do what a book cannot: show the faces, voices, and personalities of the victims. Though appearances can be deceiving, as Maciel himself proved, the witnesses are credible. Older now, they tell embarrassing and emotional stories on camera calmly, with dignity.

We see and hear Juan Vaca, one of the original accusers, telling how first began the abuse he endured from Maciel in the Rome Legionary headquarters “night after night”:

We used to go to evening prayers about 9.30. So after I was in bed a companion called me and he said, Nuestro Padre wants to see you. Right now. He’s in his bedroom. Right away I went to see him. And he whispered to me, he said, come closer, come closer, so I approached reluctantly and he started to moan like in pain. He said, please give me a massage in my stomach. And he moved my hand doing a massage. I couldn’t believe, touching this holy man. He was moving my hand down lower and lower until finally I started to touch his erection. The first time in my life I touch anybody. So he said, I’m going to tell you how to do it. He got his orgasm and I just couldn’t move. After a while I think he noticed I was just petrified there. He said, you can go back to sleep. So I left.

Vaca wakes up next morning “in confusion, in anguish” and approaches Maciel for confession (too young to know that canon 884 of the code of Church law then in force forbade a priest from absolving someone with whom he had committed a sexual sin, but having nowhere else to turn):

… after Mass I went to Maciel, to his office and I said, Father I think I committed a mortal sin. You want me to touch you in your private parts. He said, probably I was unconscious, so what you did was an act of compassion, you helped me to relieve myself of my pain. But no, Father, I still don’t feel that was right. Don’t worry, if that’s the case, I give you the absolution. So he made me the absolution.

Here we glimpse the origin of a pattern pressed by Maciel on his disciples and being recapitulated to this minute. In the aftermath of the new revelations, Legionaries and members of Regnum Christi, the associated lay organization, are being told that Maciel fathered his child while medicated after brain surgery, and even that the woman who became the mother took advantage of him while unconscious. Official talking points give us to believe, “It’s part of the mystery of human behavior, and involves moral and psychological factors, circumstances, etc.”

Father Thomas Williams said February 6 on The World Over on EWTN: “I don’t know whether there was a psychological problem there. He had a doctor for 30 years who recently said that he thought he had a multiple personality disorder.” Father Maciel is always “ill” and “unconscious” (even if the nature of the illness changes from story to story). He is never the conscious
victimizer, only the unconscious victim.

So why does Vaca remain with the Legionaries under these circumstances?

He trained us this way. You have been called by God to be a Legionary priest. This is your eternity. You leave, you go to hell. There is a saying in Latin, vocatio perdita, damnatio secura, lost vocation, damnation for sure.

Father Williams was evidently incorrect when claiming on EWTN: “Anybody who wants to leave [the Legion] can leave. That’s always been the case.”

The Legionary fourth vow never to criticize the superior requires Vaca to lie to Vatican investigators:

Maciel instructed us to say, no, nothing happened. If the Legion is destroyed, our lives will be ended, right there. We didn’t know what to do. I lied. I lied. Yes, I lied.

So much for the Legionary claim that Maciel was cleared and reinstated in 1959 after an exhaustive Vatican investigation. So much for so many other lies the Legionaries have told for their Founder over the decades.

Maciel abuses in a new generation and we hear from someone not interviewed in the book, Christopher Kunze. A Marquette graduate, attracted to Legionary rhetoric of cultural warfare and ambition to save Catholic religious life, he joins in 1984. Maciel visits an apostolic work in Switzerland in 1992 and Kunze wonders about the prescriptionless “orange bottles with white caps all in rows filled with white powder” that he notices in Maciel’s luggage.

A superior, Father Fergus O’Carroll, assures him that Maciel has special permission due to illness to mix his own drugs. Maciel appoints Kunze his chauffeur and then on a drive to Belgium tells him to pull the car over, strokes his arm, and asks for a massage. Vowed to silence, he keeps Maciel’s secret and is ordained in 1994 in the presence of his abuser to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his abuser’s ordination.

Subject to Legionary restrictions on mail and outside information, but now assigned as a bureaucrat in the Vatican congregation for Clergy, Kunze has for the first time free access to the internet and discovers online the 1997 Hartford Courant article that brings him to understand his own experience with Maciel. Altogether, the experiences of Vaca and Kunze stand for those of many others: abused, kept quiet through coercion of vow and guilt, priesthood polluted and ruined by Maciel.

The film suggests connections between the Legion and the farthest right wing ideology. Jose Barba, another early Legionary and accuser, and Vaca explain that Maciel admired the Germans and Christianized the Nazi salute. Vaca demonstrates the Heil Christus! Francisco Franco is of course a supporter.. Barba still remembers and sings as once he did in the Legion the Hymn of Franco’s Infantry:

Ardor guerrero vibre en nuestras voces (which he misremembers as nuestros pechos)
y de amor patrio henchido el corazónentonemos el Himno Sacrosanto
del deber, de la Patria y del Honor ¡Honor!

A soldier’s ardor rings in our voices
and our heart is filled with love for the fatherland.
We sing the Holy Hymn
of duty, of the Fatherland, and of Honor. Honor!

This material is incendiary, to be sure, but the view that fascism was admirable as the only ideology powerful enough to oppose Communism was a conservative commonplace before and during the Second World War (though Maciel is here inculcating it even after the war). As Pierre Laval, prime minister of Vichy France, said famously on the radio in June 1942, “I wish for the victory of Germany because without her, Bolshevism will be established everywhere.”

Catholic conservatives of the time were not farseeing enough to sense danger in allying Catholic orthodoxy with fascism, even while leftists were murdering priests and nuns in Spain. Barba says Maciel showed them inspirational documentaries about the Spanish civil war and we are reminded of another young Catholic, Christian de la Mazière, talking about that too in Marcel Ophul’s 1971 documentary The Sorrow and the Pity and about then going off to join the Charlemagne division of the Nazi SS.

Legionaries now claim to be “conservative” only in their orthodoxy and not in their politics. But Barba and Vaca make us feel the influence of 1930s fascism on life in a Catholic movement and put in historical context the exaggerated Legionary reverence for Maciel, the strongman-leader-protector they call “Nuestro Padre,” their caudillo, marechal, duce, führer. Thirty years later, Pinochet’s Chile brings Maciel, who is building a prep school, university, and radio station there, together in friendship with Angelo Sodano, the Vatican ambassador. Later, as Vatican Secretary of State, Sodano is in place several times to impede the Maciel investigation within Ratzinger’s CDF.

J. Paul Lennon, prominent in ReGain, a networking effort of unhappy former Legionaries, though a vehement critic of Maciel’s leadership in other ways says he was not sexually abused and he had no inkling of Maciel’s improprieties with others. This is strong evidence of Maciel’s powers of compartmentalization and gives some credibility to those close to Maciel who now say they had no idea. In his recent memoir, Our Father Who Art in Bed (2008), Lennon suggests that a previous experience had made him proof against Maciel’s advances: in a general confession to Maciel before taking his first religious vows, Lennon mentioned having been “accosted” by an Irish Christian Brother at his Dublin high school before joining the Legion. Irony upon irony.

Lennon is generous to Pope John Paul, saying that he too was Maciel’s victim. But overall the documentary takes the view that Church justice for these victims, as for so many others all over the world, has been late and inadequate. Some will call this an attack on the Church, but the Church is in a poor position if merely to state clearly what she did and did not do counts as an attack. (The documentary is more widely persuasive for having avoided the “liberal” bias of the book against traditional Church teaching on matters of sex and gender, which are questions separate from the hypocrisy of Maciel and the failures of Vatican justice.) Church administrators handled the case of Maciel’s victims as poorly as they did the wider crisis. Vaca first made his charges discretely, through proper channels in the diocese of Rockville Center, where he served as a priest after leaving the Legion, yet his letters went unanswered three times by two popes.

Ratzinger to his credit got involved where John Paul would not, and as pope disciplined Maciel and abolished the fourth Legionary vow. Justice has even so been incomplete: the 2006 discipline never spelled out what Maciel was being punished for and never acknowledged or vindicated his victims. The discipline even praised Legionary apostolates “independently of the person of the Founder,” though it never made sense for the Church to discipline the man yet never examine the effects his sins may have had on the life of his institute. Whoever winks the eye causes trouble, but the one who rebukes boldly makes peace. (Proverbs 10.10)

Nor is there any point in denying that John Paul damaged his reputation by having ignored the petitions of Maciel’s victims and, on the contrary, privileged the Legionaries and honored a child molester as an important spiritual leader. Those who authentically admire and wish to claim John Paul’s larger heritage will see an accurate accounting of the past not as an attack, but as “purification of memory.” And in the thought of St. John of the Cross, whom John Paul loved, glory needs ever to be tempered with failure.

Maciel always needed special treatment, special permission, special Vatican protectors. Juan Vaca ends the film Vows of Silence by asking: “I always wanted to know where sickness ends and evil starts.” Sad to think that those who most need to have this question posed by the film are those whose film viewing is restricted by spiritual directors trained by the wisdom of a controlling predator and whose empathy is circumscribed by official talking points. Anyone tempted to credit Legionary theology of the “great mystery of how the Holy Spirit can play beautiful melodies on a broken instrument” should see the faces and hear the voices of several of the many men abused by Maciel. Their melody is not so beautiful.

Cassandra Jones is a pseudonym of a writer who worked in the Legion of Christ for a number of years.



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