Just days after the one-year anniversary of the death of Legion of Christ founder Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the controversial priest grabbed international headlines as news spread that he had fathered a child while serving as superior of the religious order. The revelation this month has prompted widespread speculation about the future of the order and its lay apostolate, Regnum Christi.

Father Maciel, a Mexican priest who founded the Legion of Christ in 1941, previously faced accusations that included the sexual abuse of seminarians as well as drug use and financial improprieties dating to the order's earliest days. Father Maciel was removed from public ministry by the Vatican in 2006 and instructed to spend the remainder of his life in private prayer and penance.

The Legion confirmed reports that it recently learned Father Maciel had fathered a daughter who is now in her 20s, but declined to comment on other accusations against him beyond saying that it is likely that some are true.

Charism in question

Jim Fair, U.S. spokesman for the Legion, told Our Sunday Visitor that while the order feels great remorse for the hurt that the scandal has caused to the Church and its members, there are no plans to renounce Father Maciel nor to refound the order.

Fair said that while the order's charism was delivered through Father Maciel, its mission comes from Christ and has been confirmed by Church authority.

"Our charism is to be focused on the model of Jesus Christ, and whatever our founder's failings, the Holy Spirit somehow delivered the charism to us through him," Fair said. He added that in spite of Father Maciel's flaws, "the charism that the Holy Spirit brought to us through him has brought many, many people to Christ and has inspired them to do a lot of good work."

Many former Legionaries and Regnum Christi members, however, believe that the order's charism is nearly indistinguishable from the life of Father Maciel. Members of the order are required to read Father Maciel's personal writings and much of the order's teachings are tied to aspects of Father Maciel's life, according to former Regnum Christi member, Steve Skojec, a Virginia-based Catholic columnist and blogger.

"The entire strength of the order was built around the mythos of Father Maciel," said Skojec, who spent several years working with the Legionaries in various apostolates. "And their spirituality was derived from him. Everything seems so rooted in him as a person that I don't see how the Legion exists without him at the center."

Legion of Christ Father Thomas Williams told OSV that the order will remove some of its emphasis on the person of Father Maciel, and has begun taking the founder's pictures off of the walls of its institutions. But Father Williams, an American who has held various leadership positions for the order in Rome, said that the founder's writings are "an integral part of the charism of the order, which the Church has approved as authentic," meaning that they can still be relied upon despite the revelations about the life of Father Maciel.

Stephen Wise, who spent two years with the Legionaries as a novice before leaving the order, argues that such a defense is flawed because the Church's approval of the charism was based on inaccurate information about Father Maciel.

"What they need to do is to take a look at how Father Maciel influenced their charism," Wise told OSV. "They need to go through point by point to determine what is the true essence of it that comes from God and what is it that came from their founder that was man-made."

Healing period

Fair said that the immediate future for the Legionaries and Regnum Christi will be a period of grieving and coming to terms with the discoveries about Father Maciel. He said that he is confident, however, that in time the order will overcome this adversity and will continue its mission.

"What God asks us to do is to be faithful and to work and to serve his church," Fair said. "And that's what we're going to continue to do. ... Right now people are hurting, but this will heal with time, and they will continue to be focused on their faith and on their love of Christ and the Church."

Fair added that while the reaction to the news thus far has been one of concern and in many cases anger, he believes that the Legion's reputation will not be permanently damaged by the scandal.

"When people see this and how we react to it, I hope they'll look back and say, 'Those Legionaries and Regnum Christi people dealt with a very difficult situation and did not lose their focus on Christ,'" he said. "It is going to take hard work, it is going to take faith and time, but we can do that."

Although the Legion reports that it currently has 850 active priests and 2,400 seminarians in addition to more than 60,000 laity in Regnum Christi worldwide, there is also a large network of former Legionaries and Regnum Christi members. Genevieve Kineke, who spent more than seven years in Regnum Christi before leaving in 2000, expects the news about Father Maciel to cause even more defections.

"Right now there is a lot of anguish. The initial response is 'How could I have missed this? How could I have believed them?'" said Kineke, a member of the Religious Groups Awareness International Network (ReGAIN), which provides support to ex-Legionaries and Regnum Christi members and their families.

Kineke said Regnum Christi should not only temporarily halt recruitment efforts, but its current members should take the time to prayerfully consider the deceit practiced by the order's founder.

"As people process these questions over the coming months, they may want to go inactive," she said. "They may want to step away and just take a deep breath, and just try to go home and process what they've been through."

What they're saying

"The Legion] can only be saved if there is full, public disclosure of Father [Marcial] Maciel's perfidies and if there is a root-and-branch examination of possible complicity in those perfidies within the Legion of Christ. That examination must be combined with a brutally frank analysis of the institutional culture in which those perfidies and that complicity unfolded. Only after that kind of moral and institutional audit has been conducted, and has been seen publicly to be a clean audit, can the Legion of Christ, and the broader Church, face the questions of the Legion's future -- which are, candidly, open questions:

  • Can the good that has come from the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi be disentangled from the person and legacy of Father Maciel?
  • Can the Legion be reformed from within, after those complicit in the Father Maciel web of deceit have been dismissed?
  • Must the Legion be dissolved, with perhaps a core group of incontestably honest former Legionaries re-forming a religious congregation dedicated to the ideals that have been fouled by Father Maciel's sins and by a manifestly wounded institutional culture?

None of these questions can be thoughtfully or prayerfully answered until there is a full audit."

-- excerpt of a column by Catholic intellectual George Weigel on the website of the journal First Things

Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.