Towering church figure shrouded in sex claims

The Age, Australia/February 6, 2008

Father Marcial Maciel, who founded the Catholic order the Legionaries of Christ, but was forced to resign after accusations that he was a cruel and long-term sexual predator, has died in Houston, Texas. He was 87.

Maciel commanded intense loyalty and raised enormous sums of money, along the way wining the special favour of Pope John Paul II. Until the evidence became overwhelming, he indignantly protested his innocence, but there were those who had long described the legionaries as cult-like, secretive and fanatically disciplined.

Founded in Mexico in the early 1940s, the order comprises theologically conservative priests and laymen, and runs a chain of universities and schools. It is especially powerful in Mexico, Spain and the US. The American liberal-leaning National Catholic Reporter was highly critical of Pope John Paul II's support for Maciel, who had accompanied him on three visits to Mexico.

When John Paul offered a public tribute to Maciel as an "efficacious guide to youth" on his third tour in 1993, nine men came forward alleging that Maciel had abused them as children. By then in their 60s, they included two university professors, a lawyer, the president of the legion's American branch and the order's one-time treasurer. One retracted his story, saying it was fabricated to damage the legion; the others persisted, while the legionaries protested not only Maciel's innocence but his saintly qualities.

The accusations did not stop John Paul congratulating Maciel in a 2004 letter for 60 years of "intense, generous and fruitful priestly ministry". Some concluded that the Pope had failed to listen to the victims.

Despite the accusations, which came in the form of letters to the Pope and a formal canon law complaint seeking Maciel's excommunication, the Vatican initially remained silent; Maciel declined to discuss the allegations. After they first surfaced publicly in 1997, he called them "defamations and falsities with no foundation whatsoever".

But his accusers claimed Maciel led a double life, displaying strict religious devotion during the day and taking boys, sometimes two at a time, to bed in the evenings. Juan Vaca, the legion's former American president, said he was 10 when Maciel started abusing him.

Yet among his powerful advocates were the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, and Father Richard John Neuhaus, a former Lutheran pastor who became a prominent Catholic theologian in New York. The Mexican primate, Cardinal Norberto Arriva Carrera, was also a Maciel supporter.

In 2004, Monsignor Charles Scicluna, Promoter of Justice to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, re-opened the investigation with the support of the congregation's then secretary of state, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger. This involved interviewing witnesses on several continents and extensively questioning victims, including more than 100 former seminarians and priests. Ratzinger and Scicluna became convinced that there was more to the claims of the victims than they had first believed.

The following year Maciel stepped down as head of the order and, a few days before John Paul II died, Ratzinger announced his intention of removing "filth" from the church; many believed he was referring specifically to Maciel. In 2006, Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, removed Maciel from active ministry, inviting him to spend the rest of his days in prayer and penance.

Marcial Maciel Degollado was born at Cotija de la Paz in the state of Michoacan. His childhood was marked by the social and religious crisis in Mexico during the 1920s that was brought vividly to life in Graham Greene's novel The Power and the Glory. In 1936 he moved to Mexico City to study for the priesthood at a seminary directed by his uncle, Rafael Valencia, the bishop of Veracruz.

According to his critics, "misunderstandings" led to Maciel's transfer to other seminaries in Veracruz, Chihuahua and Cuernavaca, all directed by relatives. He was expelled from two of them before he was 20.

Maciel had founded the congregation of the Legionaries of Christ when he was aged 21, and during the final three years of his priestly training he began to direct the formation of young seminarians. In the 1950s he established the legion centre for higher studies in Rome, the Cumbres Institute in Mexico City, and many other schools and universities in Latin America, North America, Italy, Ireland and Switzerland.

Even during this period there were rumours about Maciel's personal life. It was said that he raped teenage boys while telling them he had a special dispensation from Pope Pius XII to have sex with them, and then absolve them from sin, because he suffered from acute pains in the stomach. It was also alleged that he was addicted to a morphine drug known as dolantine. In 1956, the Vatican removed his faculties, but he was reinstated three years later when he founded a lay associate movement, Regnum Christi.

Maciel cultivated the support of successive popes. In 1965, Paul VI awarded the legion the "Decree of Praise" for various accomplishments. These included schools and training centres for catechists and missionaries. To raise the necessary funds, Maciel would persuade a rich donor to host a party for wealthy friends, who were then challenged to outdo the host's donation. Having secured their pledges, the legion would quietly refund the original donor's money.

Maciel reached the peak of his influence under Pope John Paul II, who appointed him in a series of advisory roles to bishops.

Although the Vatican forced Maciel to resign from office, it stopped short of a canonical trial. Through the medium of the legion Maciel likened himself to Christ before Pilate by declaring his innocence and deciding not to defend himself.

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