Lessons from a scandal

Haven't we had enough of scandal? Haven't we had enough of self-inflicted wounds and headlines involving Church leaders? Haven't we had enough of the jokes and the headshaking, the growing belief that no one is really who they seem, and that holiness is just another word for Not Been Caught Yet?

We aren't even surprised anymore. The whiff of scandal clung to Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legion of Christ, for years. At the time, some of the rumors -- such as those involving drug use -- seemed far-fetched. The testimony of former Legionaries who said that he had abused them as children seemed more compelling because of the stature and demeanor of the accusers, but for many years those accusers were vilified and their charges dismissed.

Father Maciel enjoyed the support of Pope John Paul II, and that seemed evidence enough that those in the know did not take such charges seriously.

A new pope, however -- one who had become experienced in the stories of clerical abuse -- approved a punishment of sorts for Father Maciel, removing him from the public eye and ordering him to take up a life of penance until his death in 2008.

I think many of us thought that this was about as far as we were ever going to get in terms of closure. Those who had great loyalty to Father Maciel saw this as the final test of a holy man. Others thought that it meant he was guilty, but the Church was handling it in its usual oblique way.

And then the final shoe dropped: This month news reports surfaced that the order had discovered that Father Maciel had had a mistress and fathered a child. The New York Times also reported allegations of possible financial abuse as well, though that has not been substantiated beyond the testimony of the former chief financial officer of the order.

How little any of us really knew about Father Maciel.

The unyielding founder of a religious order that liked to think of itself as the Pope's Marines, a founder who was held up as the paragon of religious discipline and piety, this founder was found to be a fraud.

Critics of the Legion will now no doubt make much of this scandal. My thoughts run along different lines.

First, it is understandable that in a hostile world we seek out our own heroes. It is completely human to want to find those men and women who show us the possibilities of the human spirit, and who appear to have the faith and the trust in God that we can only long for.

They are all human beings first, however, and the kind of rapturous adulation with which the modern Catholic celebrity culture responds to the Saint-In-the-Making is not healthy. Our focus should be first and foremost on Christ. The cult of celebrity quickly becomes idol worship. This warning particularly applies to new movements and orders.

Second, the Vatican and the bishops must dedicate themselves to a culture of reform and renewal if they ever want to put the endless series of sexual, financial and leadership scandals behind them. Unhealthy religious environments that are either too controlling or too lax are dangerous. As the recent U.S. seminary report underscores, the Church needs to improve its oversight of religious orders, and a good place to start would be this scandal.

Finally, ideological purity and all the public badges of orthodoxy do not mean that one is immune from sin. Indeed, excessive rigidity, an obsession with certain sins, usually sexual, and a controlling personality are often warning signs that something is not right.

There are many good and holy members of the Legion who attribute their vocations and spirituality to Father Maciel. How they will "reconcile such contraries," as Father Owen Kearns, LC, put it, is a heavy cross they now must pick up. For the entire Church, more prayer and more action is needed in the wake of this latest scandal.

Greg Erlandson is the president and publisher of OSV.