Questioning the Legion of Christ

Catholic Courier    |    12.20.2009
Category: Columns


There have been several books published on the sexual-abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic priesthood since the original burst of reports in the media nearly three years ago, beginning with the dramatic disclosures in The Boston Globe in January 2002.

One book stands alone, however, in assigning ultimate blame to the Vatican itself and to the current pontificate: Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, by Jason Berry and Gerald Renner (Free Press, 2004).

Berry is the author of five previous books, one of which, Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children (1992), was among the first to call attention to the growing, but still largely ignored, sexual-abuse problem. Renner was for many years the staff specialist on religion for The Hartford Courant.

The Berry-Renner book focuses on two key figures as its framework for analyzing the crisis. One serves as the hero of the story: Thomas Doyle, a Dominican priest who once served in the Apostolic Delegation in Washington, D.C., and who has been one of the most dedicated defenders and supporters of victims and survivors of sexual abuse and of their families.

The other serves as the goat of the story: Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, which is one of the so-called new movements in the Catholic Church that have received special attention and favor during this pontificate.

Building upon their copyrighted articles published in The Hartford Courant in 1997, Berry and Renner detail the charge that Father Maciel was himself guilty of sexual abuse in the past by quoting nine victims of his unwanted attentions, all ex-Legionaries. The Legion has denied the allegations but the complaints have never been adjudicated by the Vatican.

With the encouragement of the papal ambassador to Mexico, a canonical case was filed with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1998, accusing Father Maciel of "absolving the sins" of his victims in confession -- an ecclesiastical crime that has no statute of limitation. In late 1999, however, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation, halted the proceeding without explanation.

Had Father Maciel been a priest in the United States and accused of sexual abuse by nine former students, he would have been immediately removed from ministry under the U.S. bishops' 2002 charter for the protection of youth.

Within the Legion and the Vatican, however, the founder's status remains secure. Legionaries take vows never to speak ill of him or their other superiors and to report any member who does. Moreover, the pope personally appointed him as a representative to the Synod for the Americas in 1997 and praised him in 2001 at a 60th-anniversary celebration of the Legion's founding.

According to a recent article by Jason Berry in The Los Angeles Times (9/26/04), Father Maciel continues to host dinners for "Vatican luminaries" from his current base at the Legion seminary in Rome.

Berry's and Renner's Vows of Silence notes that the Legion has several high-profile champions within a certain segment of the Catholic community in the United States: George Weigel, renowned biographer of Pope John Paul II; William Bennett, a popular spokesman for traditional values, notwithstanding his recent involvement in high-stakes gambling; Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things magazine; William Donahue, head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights; Mary Ann Glendon, a professor at Harvard Law School and a Vatican favorite; and Deal Hudson, who recently resigned as editor of Crisis magazine and as an adviser to President Bush on Catholic matters following an unfavorable story about Hudson in The National Catholic Reporter.

Berry also cites instances where Legion members have been a divisive influence in some U.S. dioceses and parishes, noting at the same time that it has at least a few powerful episcopal supporters in this country.

William Wiegand, Bishop of Sacramento, reportedly favors a Legion plan to found a university in his diocese, and John Donaghue, Archbishop of Atlanta, has given the Legion and Regnum Christi, its lay arm, "near carte blanche to teach catechism to Catholic kids who don't attend parochial schools," Berry writes.

But another bishop took a completely different approach to the Legion back in 2002. When parents in the diocese of Columbus, Ohio, complained about disruptions created in their parochial school by members of Regnum Christi, Bishop James Griffin made a formal visitation to the parish and listened to all sides in the dispute.

Three weeks later, he publicly barred Regnum Christi from parish property and the Legion of Christ from any role in his diocese.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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