Vatican reopens sex abuse investigation

The Journal News/January 11, 2005

The Vatican has reopened an investigation into charges that a powerful Mexican priest close to the pope sexually abused seminarians.

The allegations focus on the actions of the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, now 84 and based in Rome. He leads the Legionaries of Christ, a conservative religious order that claims 600 priests in 18 countries. Its U.S. headquarters is in Orange, Conn., but the order has a growing presence in Westchester County.

The allegations surfaced in February 1997. Nine former members of the group said Maciel first abused them years ago when they were young boys or teenagers, ages 10 to 16, in seminaries in Spain and Italy.

Maciel and the Legionaries of Christ have vigorously denied the allegations of abuse. Maciel has accused the nine men of a conspiracy to defame him.

A spokesman for the religious order said Friday that the Legionaries of Christ had not been informed that the investigation was being reopened. Jay Dunlap said the Vatican investigated Maciel in the late 1950s and cleared him of any wrongdoing.

"The Vatican investigated, moved in, questioned the Legionaries individually and in depth, and found absolutely no wrongdoing of any kind," Dunlap said.

The Legionaries bought 265 acres in Mount Pleasant from IBM in 1996. But the order has been embroiled in a long legal battle with the town over the property's tax status. The order plans to open a liberal arts university in the Catholic tradition on part of the property.

In New Castle, the Legionaries have long planned to build a seminary on a 98-acre property they bought from the Unification Church in 1994. These plans, opposed by some neighbors, have been stuck in the town's approval process. In October the order announced alternative plans to build a center for training female missionaries of Regnum Christi, a lay movement affiliated with the Legionaries.

Maciel's accusers, all professional men - two Mexican-Americans, five Mexicans and two Spaniards, one now deceased - have tried for years to call their accusations to the attention of Pope John Paul II. The pope in November praised Maciel in a letter on the 60th anniversary of his priestly ordination, citing his "intense, generous and fruitful priestly ministry."

A week later, Maciel's accusers were told the Vatican was reopening a canon law investigation that stalled in 1999.

The canon law case had been lodged formally by the former Legionaries against Maciel in November 1998. A high-level Vatican agency, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, accepted the complaint as credible for further investigation. But it never proceeded, and no investigation was made.

In a letter dated Dec. 2, Martha Wegan, a Vatican-approved canon lawyer who is an advocate for the men's case, informed them that a new "permanent promoter of justice" for the congregation has been appointed and wanted to know if they wanted to proceed.

"It seems to me that now the case is being taken seriously," she wrote.

"They say now they are taking it seriously? Before, it wasn't serious?" scoffed Juan Vaca, a former priest who headed the legion's U.S. operations in Connecticut from 1971 to 1976. He now teaches psychology at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry.

Vaca said there was no question the men wanted the case to go forward. He said Jose de J. Barba Martin, spokesman for the men accusing Maciel, informed Wegan they wanted to proceed.

Vaca had raised accusations against Maciel in letters to Pope John Paul II in 1978 and 1989 but never got a response. He named 20 others who he said had been abused by Maciel, his superior.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.