New circumstances forced the Legionaries of Christ the week of February 2 unwillingly to admit to the secret life of the Founder on whose person they had based their religious lives, Father Marcial Maciel, but their official response to the revelations shows them still as out of touch with the Church and the wider world as they were throughout the past decades spent telling truculent untruth on his behalf. While some Legionaries contemplate the mystery of how a sexual predator could still have done so much good in their lives, the rest of the Church lives with the consequences of his predation. The accusations against Maciel personally were never the only criticisms made of the congregation. These too must be accounted for in light of our now more complete understanding of the Founder’s life.
Several Legionary priests made public statements in the immediate aftermath, which prove to have accurately anticipated official talking points distributed to Legionaries and Regnum Christi members on February 13. These priests include Rev. Paolo Scarafoni, a spokesman in Rome, Revs. Thomas Williams and Jonathan Morris on EWTN, Rev. Owen Kearns, publisher of the Legionary National Catholic Register, and Rev. Alvaro Corcuera himself, Director General of the order.
The common position: we can only remain grateful to our Founder, who did us tremendous good, though he was a weak human instrument.. The Church’s approval of our Constitutions implies recognition of a valid charism and a continued mission. We will gather our supporters, prominent among them Cardinal Franc Rodé, head of the Vatican Congregation for Religious Life, and just move on. As Scarafoni put it, “There is great peace among us… This is a period of trial, but we are forcing ourselves to carry on and overcome it and not abandon our mission….. We have received a great gift from our founder but we have also discovered that he had faults.” Apologies to Maciel’s victims are not in order because “they have surely found a way by now to receive adequate care."
The public position of course has its problems: The serenity is unrealistic.. There are Legionary priests now sobbing privately and reconsidering their very priesthood. Legionaries are privately divided about how radically to disavow the Founder. (The more generous, unsanctioned public apologies by Register executive editor Tom Hoopes and Legionary Father Thomas Berg are indications of this.) Resistance to apologizing perpetuates contempt for Maciel’s rape victims. The questions as to 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, are now being discussed by theologians and canon lawyers (if not by Cardinal Rodé).
But the Legionaries have been in the habit of speaking unrealistically, even untruthfully, about their Founder since the accusations against him first emerged publicly in 1997. And as Montaigne once wrote on lying, “Once let the tongue acquire the habit of lying and it is astonishing how impossible it is to make it give it up.” Consider the history:
= After Jason Berry and the late Gerald Renner first reported the accusations 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.
=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 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 wrote falsely, “It should be noted that ‘penitence’ in this connection does not connote punishment for wrongdoing.”
=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 and thereby silencing Maciel’s under-resourced critics.
=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.
Now that the Legionaries have abruptly transitioned from denying that Maciel was disciplined to speaking as if they understood that all along, they can hardly avoid going further and reconsider the boast, which he inspired them to make, that they offer the best religious formation in the Church. They must now deal openly with the many criticisms against them made by former members, 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.
Critics have also called attention to the Legion’s coercive and manipulative recruitment tactics and poor discernment process. 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 fall easier prey to the mindless and uncritical idolizing of their Founder. Vendors local to Legionary houses have complained that Legionaries arrogantly refuse to pay bills or pay with a bouncing check.
Father Williams claimed on EWTN that the framed photographs of the Founder (hung ubiquitously in Legionary houses) are now being taken down. In at least one Legionary house as of the time I write, this has not happened. He also claimed that anyone is and was always free to leave the Legion at any time. Also untrue, as will attest 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.”
So the disconcerting question arises: what if, instead of reacting to the revelations with shock and a resolution to reform, the next generation of Legionary defenders are not willing to face and tell the truth? Will we be told who Maciel’s enablers were? Who confected the now obviously fraudulent documents on which his defense was based in 1997? Most explosively, 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?
Maciel’s defenders always cited Matthew 7.20. Father Kearns wrote in 2006 after the discipline: “Vindication has always come, because the Judge's instructions to the jury have always been the same: By their fruits you will know them.” Father Neuhaus had based his “moral certitude” of knowing Maciel’s innocence by the fruits of his professed orthodoxy and the Legion’s impressive vocational statistics. But the argument was always circular: it excluded a priori from consideration those who were damaged by their experience of the Legion and Regnum Christi and became critics, including those who lost their faith or nearly did because in the name of Christ they had been manipulated and lied to. The accusers were always themselves fruits of the tree, even though they were not believed.
Now that they, not Maciel, have been vindicated, Matthew 7.18 comes into focus: A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. As
Legionaries confront their past and face their future, it will not be easy for them to account for these words of the Lord.
For another example of the difficulty of facing the past, Father Williams said on EWTN that even while he disavows the Founder’s life, his writings remain valid expression of Legionary charism. Father Kearns wrote 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 the good that can come even from a flawed 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?
Father Owen Kearns has now written, “I owe my priesthood and my way of being a disciple of Jesus to Father Maciel’s guidance and spirituality, and for that I will always be grateful.” This is just the problem: whether he was a witting or an unwitting tool, his priestly ministry was coopted into that of Legionary spinmeister for years at the Register in service to the needs of a predator. Those of us who revere Pope John Paul are less grateful for Maciel’s having spattered John Paul’s reputation. John Paul will now be remembered for having honored and recommended a child molester as “an efficacious guide to youth.”
Yet the Legionaries betrayed John Paul not only in claiming 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. As the vocation director of a large US congregation once said to me, the difference between us and them is that they say they love him and in private ignore Church teaching at will, while we agree with him on 95% and on the other 5% where we disagree we tell him so up front.
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 reject, for example, Maciel’s depersonalizing words on vocational recruitment: “I hope that… the image I have always cherished of our apostolate centers becomes a reality: a fish producing ‘tank’ where fishermen can spend their time intensively and successfully harvesting.” If the Legionaries are attentive to John Paul’s words on the Areopagus in 2000: “Memory is too lofty and noble a sanctuary to be defiled by human sin... Clearly there is a need for a liberating process of purification of memory.”, let them 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. Do the Legionaries believe in the communion of saints? Are not all of us in the Church hurt even by what the Legionaries can still successfully conceal?
On New Year’s Day 1990, as Czechoslovakia emerged from a Communist past, Vaclav Havel spoke to the nation:
The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. … I am talking about all of us. We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all - though naturally to differing extents - responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery. None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators.… We have to accept this legacy as a sin we committed against ourselves.
This kind of honesty would make a healthier attitude for Legionaries to adopt than Father Corcuera’s “regarding the person of our Father Founder, I cannot but recognize all the good I received through him.” If Legionaries continue to claim publicly that a sexual predator and liar led them to faith and vocation, we must wonder how authentically Catholic and Christian that faith and vocation ever was. Is their Jesus our Jesus?
Cassandra Jones is a pseudonym. The writer has worked for the Legionaries for a number of years.