For many members of the Legion of Christ, learning about the sinful double life of their founder, Father Marcial Maciel, was like the “old days in Chicago” when the FBI knocked on someone’s door and told them their father was a hit man for the Mob, said Jim Fair.
“Your reaction is disbelief and denial. And then your second reaction is like, ‘Well, he’s always been such a nice father who brought us to baseball games and helped us with our homework,’” Fair, a 14-year member of the Legion’s lay wing, Regnum Christi, and the congregation’s communications director for North America, told Our Sunday Visitor.
“The difficulty for a lot of people initially in coming to terms with things was that the revelations didn’t square with the experiences they had,” said Fair, who met and shook hands with Father Maciel “a couple of times.”
“It’s been a real soul-searching process,” he added.
The next step in that process is an extraordinary general chapter that was scheduled to begin on Jan. 8 in Rome.
Over the next two months, the Legion will elect new leaders and approve new constitutions that will cap a vital reform and reorganization process that began shortly after Pope Benedict XVI removed Father Maciel from ministry in 2006 and ordered him to a life of prayer and penance.
Father Maciel, a native of Mexico who founded the Legion in 1941, died in 2008. It has been confirmed in recent years that he fathered at least three children with at least two women, and that he sexually abused boys and underage seminarians.
The challenge for the extraordinary general chapter will be to salvage a congregation that — although consisting of many earnest holy men and women trying to faithfully live out their vocation — was founded by a morally duplicitous individual who imbued the Legion of Christ with an authoritarian and secretive streak along with organizational structures and a culture that made it difficult, if not impossible, to question the leadership.
Fair said the Legion is expected to downsize its constitution from 800 to 200 sections. Whereas most religious congregations’ constitutions consist of general principles, the Legion’s was unusually detailed and governed minute details of its members’ daily lives, including areas of dining etiquette and personal behavior.
“Looking back, we can now say, ‘Well, that is not surprising given the sort of detailed, controlling nature of our founder,’” Fair said. “We’re in a very different world now.”
But some observers, including former Legionaries and Regnum Christi members, are skeptical the congregation can be reformed. Critics say many individuals in the Legion’s leadership enabled Father Maciel and continued to cover for him even as credible accusations surfaced against him.
“My distinct impression is that many people inside the Legion, even the younger ones who didn’t have any direct role in the cover-ups and behavioral patterns that brought such scandal on the order, have no real grasp of how traumatized and psychologically burned so many of these people who left that movement feel,” said Jason Berry, an independent journalist who has covered the Legion of Christ scandal and author of "Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church" (Broadway Books, $16).
Berry told OSV that the Legion has been deeply warped by institutional psycho-dynamics of safeguarding Father Maciel from criticism.
“I’m echoing what many people have told me in that everyone (in the Legion) should go through sustained therapy to get a sense of what really happened,” said Berry, who added that he has not seen a profound internal overhaul within the Legion of Christ or Regnum Christi.
“I think as a result you have an extenuation perhaps of all the problems,” Berry said. “That is not to say that things are the way they were 10 years ago. But rewriting constitutions does not change a mental landscape.”
Fair said the Legion in recent years has been working toward transparency and dealing forthrightly with its institutional shortcomings. The congregation has been decentralized to allow more decision-making at the local and territorial levels.
In the past year, the congregation in North America released its first public financial report, which was posted online.
Last February, the Legion issued a report of all its old sex abuse cases and the dispositions of all the allegations the congregation has received over the years.
In early December 2013, the Legion of Christ also announced that an investigation had uncovered “significant evidence of sexual abuse” committed by the order’s former novice master at its seminary in Chesire, Conn.
“These are very specific tangible things that we have been doing,” Fair said. “I would ask that people watch us, question us and challenge us. We want to be accountable, and we believe that we are being accountable. That’s the world we live in today and the world we embrace.”
As evidence of that new approach, Fair noted that the Legion of Christ invited the press to cover the opening Mass and proceedings of the extraordinary general chapter. In late February, the congregation plans to launch a new website with daily reports on the chapter, including a priest who will blog on his impressions of the proceedings.
A video posted on the Legion’s website in early January showed several of the congregation’s priests arriving in Rome for a week of spiritual exercises leading up to the general chapter.
Some priests interviewed on camera said they were hoping that the Holy Spirit would enlighten them of God’s will for their congregation.
“I’m going to ask the Lord for a Legion where there is room for everyone, and I’m going to ask him for the grace to renew ourselves from the very depths of our hearts,” said Legion Father Jose Sanchez Baile.
At an ordination Mass in late December to welcome 31 new priests to the Legion of Christ, Cardinal Velasio de Paolis, the papal delegate overseeing the congregation’s reform, said he believed the Legion will be “reconciled with itself and with others” and “able to forgive and ask forgiveness.”
Apart from electing new leadership and constitutions that will be submitted to Pope Francis, Fair said the extraordinary general chapter will allow for discussions on topics important to the delegates.
“We’ve really been working to clarify our charism and revising the way the different branches of our family work and live their daily lives,” Fair said.
Berry said that remains to be seen, noting that religious orders and congregations draw their charisms from their founders, much like the Jesuits do from St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Franciscans from St. Francis of Assisi.
“The only charism (Father Maciel) had that I can see was knowing how to separate wealthy people from their money,” Berry said.
“When you have a group of questionable spiritual vision, I’m not saying the people there are devoid of spirituality; but no matter how believing and spiritual the person can be, if the structure is warped, it creates an enormous problem, as we’re seeing from people who are speaking out,” he added.
Fair, a former communications director for oil companies, said he thought he was taking on a less controversial job when he went to work for the Legion of Christ.
“What I’ve learned in the last five years,” Fair said, “is that explaining an oil spill is a lot easier than explaining Father Maciel.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.