Legion of Christ digests Vatican mandate for 'revision'

For some, it was a welcome first step out of the paralyzing uncertainty of the past year. For others, it was a sign to make a definitive break. 

Members of the Legion of Christ, reeling from revelations of serial sex abuse and other improprieties by its late founder, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, are reacting differently to Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to appoint a delegate to oversee an “in-depth revision” of the religious order, redefine its charism and review its structures of leadership. 

Two Legion priests who are well-known U.S. television commentators illustrate the response. One, Father Jonathan Morris, a Fox News analyst, is leaving to become a diocesan priest in the Archdiocese of New York (see sidebar below). Another, CBS analyst and author Father Thomas D. Williams, told OSV in an email interview he’s grateful to the Vatican and happy to begin rebuilding. 

Our Sunday Visitor: The Legion leadership has promised full cooperation with the steps announced in the Vatican communique. Was there anything that particularly struck you about the announcement? 

Father Thomas D. Williams, L.C.: The first thing that struck me was the swiftness with which the Holy See released this statement, something I am tremendously grateful for. There is nothing worse than being in limbo, and I really appreciate this quick and encouraging statement. 

The content of the statement was basically what I expected. I loved the last section, where the Holy Father assures us of his closeness to us, reminds us that our vocation originates in Christ’s call, is a genuine gift from God and represents a treasure for the Church. This gives me great confidence for the future, and also allows us Legionaries to present this path to others as something that the Church appreciates and values. Personally, I was greatly encouraged by the Holy Father’s evident concern for us, and paternal care. 

The statement also mentions specific points that require evaluation and study, such as calling for a redefinition of the Legion’s charism around its core as “ militia Christi ,” which I found invigorating. It reminded me immediately of Pope Paul VI’s words to the Legionaries back in 1974, where he said: “You are Legionaries, that is, not listless people waiting to see how things go, but who want to give Christianity an expression that is particularly yours: militancy. Legionaries: that is, soldiers for Christ. May God preserve you in this character.” This is one of the things that first attracted me to the Legion many years ago. 

OSV: There have been several high-profile defections of priests from the congregation, but it appeared there was also a group that postponed that decision to see what action the Vatican would take. Do you get the impression that this announcement is sufficiently strong to keep more from leaving? 

Father Williams: I think that depends on what they were waiting for. Some probably had preconceived notions of what they wanted or expected from the Holy See, so it all depends on whether they got what they were hoping for. People leave for all different reasons, and they need to be respected in their decision. Religious life is always hard, and especially in a moment like this. I don’t fault anyone for leaving. 

OSV: Did you ever consider leaving? Why did you stay? 

Father Williams: When people around you are questioning their vocation, it’s hard not to question your own. What I found is that I can’t deny the vocation I received from Christ. It wasn’t my imagination; it was, and is, real. Someone else’s failings don’t excuse me from living out the vocation I was called to. It’s tough, and I never would have planned things this way, but I believe in God, and I have to answer to him alone.

OSV: How is it possible that top Legion leadership either did not know or turned a blind eye to Father Maciel’s behavior? 

Father Williams: Father Maciel was always very discreet, and in the 10 years I lived with him I never witnessed anything but exemplary religious behavior. Maybe others did, but I certainly didn’t. I don’t believe that Father Alvaro [Corcuera, the Legion’s general director] knew anything about Father Maciel’s immoral behavior, either, and I have no reason to believe that any of our current leadership was aware of this. I know that for people outside the Legion this can seem unbelievable, but for those on the inside it’s just the way it was. 

OSV: Did you personally ever have any suspicions? 

Father Williams: No. I think the reason we were so slow to believe the accusations against Father Maciel, and so shocked when they turned out to be true, is because we had only seen the “good side” of Father Maciel. He always treated me with kindness and respect, and I never had cause to suspect that there was another side to him. I am very sorry to have doubted the victims of his abuse, but at the time the accusations seemed unbelievable to me, and foreign to everything I had experienced of Father Maciel. 

OSV: What has been the impact on daily life in the congregation and Regnum Christi as a result of these revelations, the visitation and the uncertainty? 

Father Williams: I think the uncertainty is the hardest thing, and that’s why I am so happy that we finally have a first response from the Holy See. We are anxious to move forward, to rebuild, and to engage in the process of purification that the Holy See has indicated to us. Obviously, the initial impact of the revelations concerning Father Maciel was devastating, and many experienced a deep sense of betrayal and confusion. Now that we have had some time to assimilate this news, we need to work together to make the Legion what God intends it to be. The Holy See’s directives and encouragement are hugely important in this process. 

John Norton is OSV editor.

What the Vatican said (sidebar)

“The very serious and objectively immoral behavior of Father Maciel, as incontrovertible evidence has confirmed, sometimes resulted in actual crimes, and manifests a life devoid of scruple and of genuine religious sentiment. ... Discovering and coming to know the truth about the founder has caused the members of the Legion surprise, bewilderment and deep pain.” 

Making Exit (sidebar) 

I’ve discerned I’m not called to dedicate my priesthood to the “profound revision,” “purification” and “redefinition” of the Legion of Christ the Holy Father has so wisely ordered. Archbishop [Timothy M.] Dolan has invited me to start the incardination process in the Archdiocese of New York. I won’t have further comments at this time.

— Father Jonathan Morris, Facebook post, May 7