A trusted ally of Pope John Paul II has been accused of sexually abusing boys a half-century ago at an elite seminary for the Catholic Church.
The alleged victims say the Vatican knew of the allegations against Father Marcial Maciel and chose not to pursue them. In fact, the pope has continued to praise 82-year-old Maciel, a Mexico native, as an effective leader of Catholic youth, despite detailed allegations sent to the Vatican four years ago saying the man was also a long-time pedophile.
Maciel denies the charges and said the men made them up only after leaving the Legion of Christ.
Maciel is the founder of the little-known but well-connected and well-financed Legion of Christ which has raised millions of dollars for the Church. Operating in the United States and 19 other countries, the Legion of Christ recruits boys as young as 10 years old to leave their families and follow a rigorous course of study to become priests.
"I think Father Maciel is one of the most powerful men in the Catholic Church today and also arguably the most mysterious," said Jason Berry, author of Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children.
Maciel is alleged to have molested some of the young men under his control, some 50 years ago, at the well-manicured seminary and headquarters of the Legion of Christ, a few miles from the Vatican. It is hidden behind high walls and a steel gate that warns of a watch dog inside.
"He pushed my hand onto his penis. And I didn't know anything about masturbation," Juan Vaca, who was first abused when he was 11 years old, told ABCNEWS. "And he says, 'You don't know how to do it. Let me show you.' And he gets my penis himself and starts to masturbate me. I was in shock."
Now 65 years old and a psychology professor at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., Vaca, the former superior of the Legion of Christ in Orange, Conn., says he was one of some 30 boys abused by Maciel during his studies at the Legion in Rome.
Vaca also told ABCNEWS how he was instructed to bring other boys from their bedrooms to Maciel's room. Vaca said Maciel had different boys visit his rooms on different nights. "In some instances, two were together with him myself and another one," he said.
Vaca said Maciel rewarded him with special privileges, such as a private meeting with Pope Pius XII, who served as pope from 1939 to 1958. Maciel always assured Vaca he was doing nothing wrong. When Vaca admitted concerns of committing a sin, Vaca said Maciel absolved him from his sin "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
He told him not to worry and to forget about it. But Vaca said he could not forget.
Vaca is not alone. He is one of eight former students, now all in their 60s, who have signed sworn affidavits submitted to the Vatican that they were abused by Maciel.
When they were members of the Legion, the accusers were devout followers of Maciel. But for the last eight years, they have been trying to get the Vatican to listen or even acknowledge their detailed allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of Father Maciel. They say they have not heard a response from the Vatican.
In 1997, they went public, telling their story to The Hartford Courant, a newspaper in Connecticut.
Courant reporters Jerry Renner and Jason Berry, who wrote the story, repeated the allegations to the Vatican, yet received no response from the Vatican. However, later that year, the pope took a step that surprised them.
Maciel was appointed to represent the pope at a meeting of Latin American bishops, which Renner and Berry took as a clear signal the Vatican had ignored the allegations.
"I would say he has the pope eating out of his hand. Who is going to touch him no matter what he does?" said J. Paul Lennon, a member of the Legion of Christ for 23 years, who has since left and has been helping those claiming to be victims. "He's untouchable."
Lennon said Maciel is a master of Vatican politics: "He's worked with several popes, knows the inner workings, knows monsignors, knows cardinals, knows maybe the men who are really in power, knows that so well, so well."
Then, four years ago, some of the men tried a last ditch effort, taking the unusual step of filing a lawsuit in the Vatican's secretive court, seeking Maciel's excommunication.
Once again they laid out their evidence, but it was another futile effort - an effort the men say was blocked by one of the most powerful cardinals in the Vatican.
The accusers say Vatican-based Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who heads the Vatican office to safeguard the faith and the morals of the church, quietly made the lawsuit go away and shelved it. There was no investigation and the accusers weren't asked a single question or asked for a statement.
He was appointed by the pope to investigate the entire sex abuse scandal in the church in recent days. But when approached by ABCNEWS in Rome last week with questions of allegations against Maciel, Ratzinger became visibly upset and actually slapped this reporter's hand.
"Come to me when the moment is given," Ratzinger told ABCNEWS, "not yet."
"Cardinal Ratzinger is sheltering Maciel, protecting him," said Berry, who expressed concerns that no response was being given to the allegations against the man charged with sex abuse. "These men knelt and kissed the ring of Cardinal Ratzinger when they filed the case in Rome. And a year-and-a-half later, he takes those accusations and aborts them, just stuffs them."
As for Father Maciel, he would not agree to speak with ABCNEWS this week in Rome, although he issued an emphatic, written denial of the allegations, in which he strongly denied the allegations of what he called "repulsive behavior." He said the men made up these allegations only after leaving the Legion of Christ. Click here for his statement.
"He has many other things to do rather than appear on a news program," said Father Tom Williams, who said he would serve as Maciel's spokesman. He called the allegations "patently false."
"I know Father Maciel very well," Williams told ABCNEWS. "I've lived with him for 10 years." Williams has never asked him about the allegations, but when the Courant ran the story in 1997, Legion spokesman released a statement denying the allegations.
Williams said the men making the accusations against Maciel can't be believed because they didn't raise the sexual abuse charges in the 1950s when Vatican investigators were looking into other matters relating to Maciel. According to Williams, the Vatican investigated Maciel on counts of mismanagement of funds, drug and substance abuse and drug trafficking. The Vatican pronounced Maciel innocent of those charges and reinstated him as superior general to the Legion.
In addition, Williams noted, a ninth accuser retracted similar allegations, claiming he was pressured to lie by the other eight accusers. Those men stand by their story, now an open challenge to both the pope and Ratzinger, who just this week proclaimed there is no place for pedophiles in the church during the Vatican meetings with American cardinals.
"It does not inspire much faith," said Berry.