Vatican says Legionaries' founder cannot exercise ministry publicly

Catholic News Service/May 1, 2006
By Cindy Wooden

Vatican City -- In a decision approved by Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican has said the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, accused of sexually abusing minors, should not exercise his priestly ministry publicly.

The Vatican also said May 19 it would not begin a canonical process against the founder, 86-year-old Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, because of his advanced age and poor health.

The Vatican statement did not get into details about the allegations against Father Maciel, but Vatican sources said the wording of the statement and its call to penance signaled it had found there was substance to the accusations.

In the statement, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Vatican had investigated the claims made by former Legionary seminarians against Father Maciel, who founded the Legionaries in his native Mexico in 1941.

"After having submitted the results of the investigation to attentive study, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under the guidance of the new prefect, His Eminence Cardinal William Levada, has decided -- taking into account both the advanced age of Rev. Maciel and his delicate health -- to forgo a canonical process and to call the priest to a life reserved to prayer and penance, renouncing any public ministry," the statement said.

Navarro-Valls added, "The Holy Father approved these decisions."

The spokesman also said, "independently of the person of the founder, the well-deserving apostolate of the Legionaries of Christ and of the association Regnum Christi is recognized with gratitude."

In a statement posted May 19 on its Web site, the Legionaries of Christ said Father Maciel, "our beloved father founder," has declared his innocence "and, following the example of Jesus Christ, decided not to defend himself in any way."

As to the Vatican's decision, it said, "with the spirit of obedience to the church that has always characterized him, he has accepted this communique with faith, complete serenity and tranquility of conscience."

The congregation said its founder knows that the restriction on his ministry is "a new cross that God, the father of mercy, has allowed him to suffer and that will obtain many graces for the Legion of Christ and the Regnum Christi movement."

According to the Vatican's 2006 yearbook, the Legionaries have 1,917 members, of whom 642 are priests. Regnum Christi is a lay movement associated with the Legionaries.

The Vatican statement said accusations against Father Maciel were brought to the doctrinal congregation in 1998.

In 2002 Father Maciel issued a public denial of the allegations of sexual abuse, it said.

"In 2005, because of his advanced age, Father Maciel retired from the office of superior general of the Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ," the Vatican said.

It said that in consideration of "all of these elements," then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the doctrinal congregation, "authorized an investigation into the accusations" in accordance with new norms issued by Pope John Paul II in 2001 with regard to clerical sex abuse and serious abuses of the sacraments.

Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, an official of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, traveled to Mexico and the United States early in 2005 to interview adults who said they were abused by Father Maciel when they were teenage seminarians.

A May 2005 statement by the Legionaries repeated Father Maciel's denial: "I can categorically state that the accusations brought against me are false. I never engaged in the sort of repulsive behavior these men accuse me of."

Nine former Legionaries, one of whom is now dead, publicly accused Father Maciel of sexually abusing them when they were teenage seminarians in the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

One of the accusers is Juan J. Vaca, a psychology professor at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., and a former priest of the Legionaries of Christ.

In a January 2005 interview with Catholic News Service, Vaca said that when he was being abused in his seminary days he once told Father Maciel that he needed to go to confession about those incidents. Vaca said Father Maciel tried to dissuade him, but when he was insistent the priest said, "Here, I will give you absolution," and made a sign of the cross over him.

Vaca said several other seminarians reported similar incidents.

After earlier complaints to the Vatican brought no response, in 1998 the eight living accusers drew up another case against Father Maciel, accusing him of giving absolution to an accomplice in a sexual sin.

Vaca said they were informed early in 2005 that the Vatican was looking into the case.

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