It could be argued that there are “worse” clerical sex abusers than Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the late Mexican founder of the Legionaries of Christ — ones who violated more minors and directly damaged more lives. But it is beyond dispute that there are none who have so betrayed the thousands who believed in him and so damaged the reputation of the wider Catholic Church.
The religious order he founded has acknowledged that he fathered a child and sexually abused minor seminarians. But he has also been accused of fathering children with two other women, sexually abusing his own children (whom he then audaciously presented to Pope John Paul II after a private papal Mass), abusing drugs and misusing funds. His sexual depravity and duplicitousness, combined with a charisma that charmed donors, followers, Pope John Paul II and Vatican officials alike, have called into serious question the indisputable good that his movement has done, served the international press an example of all that is wrong with the Roman Catholic priesthood and done incalculable damage to countless souls.
That explains the toughness of the Vatican’s announcement earlier this month that Pope Benedict XVI has decided to name a delegate to guide the order through an “in-depth revision,” redefinition of its charism and review of an internal power structure that permitted Father Maciel to carry on unstopped for decades.
Of course, the pope could have decided simply to shut the order down and get a fresh start. Given the cult of personality around Father Maciel and the way that his thought and spirituality was systematically integrated into the formation of its members, some argue that the order is unsalvageable.
The order could yet, as former staunch Legion supporter George Weigel has pointed out, decide to self-dissolve and refound, making a definitive break with the past and with the “grand narrative” of supposed heroic sanctity of the founder.
To try to redirect and restore the order may ultimately be the more challenging route. As our interview with Legion of Christ Father Thomas D. Williams shows (see Page 4), many members, both priest and lay, interpret their allegiance to the group as a solemn calling by God, a vocation. That is valid to a point, but it may also constrain some in necessary criticism of structural problems or lead them to believe that exiting would be sinful.
The Vatican praises the zeal and sincerity of many members of the group and promises “not to abandon” them. But it would be a mistake for Legion priests and lay members to think therefore that minor tweaks will be enough to accomplish renewal, or that it only has to take place at the top. As the Vatican statement points out, Father Maciel’s systematic and criminal sinfulness has had “serious consequences in the life and structure of the Legion.” Each member of the movement must play a role in purging out all traces of Father Maciel’s warped personality.
It is also worth noting that the damage from all this would have been considerably less had Father Maciel been stopped much sooner — like in the 1950s, when the Vatican last took over the order because of suspicions about him. Some have reported that Father Maciel ensured his survival by exploiting the Italian practice of greasing palms at the Vatican, even into recent years. Whatever truth there is in that, just as the Vatican has asked bishops’ conferences around the world to reflect on failings that allowed this crisis, the same applies to the Vatican itself. For an institution of such vast spiritual and worldly experience to have been deceived by such a charlatan must be the cause of self-analysis and reform.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor