The grave sins of its founder, Marcial Maciel, cast a dark shadow over this blossoming religious community.
One of the fastest growing congregations in terms of religious and priests – the Legionaries of Christ – has been dealing for years with a rare crisis in the history of the Church upon revealing the serious and manifold crimes of its founder, Marcial Maciel.
On January 8, the general chapter of the Legionaries – the congregation’s highest governing body – was convened. Among its many tasks will be the work of laying out a process of purification and a relaunching of the service of this congregation to the Church and the world.
The 61 priests participating in the general chapter (42 of which are elected by members of the organization, and 19 of which serve ex officio) have two main objectives: the election of its new superiors and the adoption of its new constitution.
The general chapter will also respond implicitly to five questions which are on the minds of the thousands of people who have followed with great surprise the wave scandals attributed to Maciel for more than a decade.
But before discussing these questions, let's review what has actually happened:
· On January 3, the Legionaries of Christ celebrated its 73rd anniversary. The Legionaries was founded by the Mexican seminarian, Marcial Maciel (1920-2008), who brought together a group of children and teens in Mexico City in what would be the beginning of a minor seminary. Later, Father Maciel founded a lay apostolate, Regnum Christi, which (according to its website) now boasts some 30,000 members in over 30 countries.
· Today, according to the congregation’s communications office, the Legionaries of Christ counts among its members four bishops, 961 priests, and 1,877 seminarians. It also owns 120 properties in twenty-two countries. The same office said that since its founding, the Legionaries has ordained 1,133 priests.
· The growth of vocations has been particularly strong in the last three decades, when the Catholic Church was suffering an acute vocational crisis in Western countries. The arrival of so many young seminarians with high academic achievement made the Legionaries a source of hope for many people in the Church, particularly during the pontificate of Bl. John Paul II.
· On May 19, 2006, the Holy See – with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI – issued a statement directing Fr. Maciel to retire to a life of prayer and penance and to abstain himself from public meetings. This decision came as the culmination of research begun by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who received complaints about Maciel in 1998. The statement did not specify the crimes of which Fr. Maciel was being accused, but it implied that they were serious crimes involving the celebration of the sacraments. The Legionaries of Christ responded with a statement in which they expressed their belief the innocence of “our venerable founding Father,” but also their obedience in abiding by the arrangement of the Holy See. They dubbed the situation a “new cross that God, the Father of Mercy, has allowed our Founder to suffer.”
· These accusations started to become public on February 23, 1997 by means of an article in the Hartford Currant, in which eight former Legionaries accused Maciel of sexual abuse when they were seminarians.
· One year after the death of Father Maciel, which occured on January 30, 2008, the Legionaries of Christ confirmed allegations that Maciel kept a mistress for many years and with whom he conceived a daughter. At least two other people have claimed to be children of Marcial Maciel, the result of a relationship with another woman.
· Following these revelations, Pope Benedict XVI commissioned five bishops to conduct an investigation known as an “apostolic visitation” of the institutions of the Legionaries of Christ, which took place between 2009 and 2010. The Holy See Press Office announced the key findings of the visit on May 1, 2010.
· In order to accompany the Legionaries in this “path of profound revision,” Pope Benedict XVI appointed a papal delegate, Cardinal Velasio de Paolis, who in these three and a half years has renewed the terms of some of the superiors of the congregation and has guided the drafting of the new constitution, which the general chapter now has to approve.
So what are the questions that the general chapter of the congregation must face?
1. What will happen to the memory of Marcial Maciel?
It is the first question that comes to mind. In the history of the Church, there has likely never been so severe a case involving a founder of a religious congregation such that the Holy See would not only make an accusation of real “crimes,” but also define the man’s character as “unscrupulous and lacking any true religious sentiment.”
After these years of reflection for the congregation, the general chapter should set forth the conditions for writing a history of the congregation that is faithful to the truth. The time has come to replace the narrative that Marcial Maciel invented for himself, and which remained enshrined in the book that I regretfully published (My Life is Christ, Planeta, Barcelona, 2003).
Probably until now, it would have been difficult to write a story true to the facts. But now, there are many more elements that ought to be known for the sake of those young people who decide to consecrate themselves to God through the Legionaries.
2. Will the “system of power” created by the founder remain suppressed?
This question resurfaces upon rereading the Vatican’s statement on the findings of the apostolic visitation, which not only accuses the founder of sexual abuse, but also of having created within the congregation a corrupt “system of power.”
This system was based on a mechanism of conscience control over people of good will who had decided to devote their lives to God. Benedict XVI took immediate steps to supress this system, particularly through the abolition of a private vow professed by the Legionaries preventing the criticism of superiors.
This “defense mechanism,” as described by the Vatican statement, allowed Maciel “to be unassailable for a long time, consequently making any knowledge of his real life exceedingly difficult.”
This mechanism created a highly internalized culture, which Cardinal De Paolis seeks to overcome by way of the new constitution. Father Deomar De Guedes, formerly the Legionaries’ second General Counsel, left the congregation last November as a result of the great difficulty that still exists today in overcoming this culture of control. One example that he cites is the review of their members’ personal email.
Following the apostolic visitation, the the Vatican Press Office stressed “the need to review the exercise of authority” in the congregation. Hopefully, the new constitution will address this matter.
3. What is the charism of the Legionaries of Christ?
In any religious community (Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, etc.), a charism is a particular way of living spirituality and apostolate in the life of the Church. This experience is typically laid out by the founder by means of his life and writings, and is recognized in a community’s rule or constitution.
The Vatican statement from May 2010 sought to “redefine the charism of the Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ while preserving its true core, the “militia Christi,” which characterizes the apostolic and missionary activity of the Church, and which is not is identified with the pursuit of efficiency at all costs.”
The story of a congregation – and of its founder in particular – models its charism. The case of the Legionaries is unique precisely due to the serious betrayal of its founder. In a world where so many people suffer from the infidelity of one’s parents or loved ones, this betrayal could become a true prophecy.
In effect, for those who experience the betrayal of a father who has transmitted the gift of faith to a believer, a singular and deep rooting in Christ becomes all the more indispensable. This is the testimony that the Legionaries are called to give to a world suffering from fragile relationships.
4. How will they make amends with their victims?
The congregation of the Legionaries of Christ, with the help of the papal delegate, has created a means by which victims of Maciel’s sexual abuse have been able to find healing. In 2010, moreover, the superiors of the congregation issued a written apology to these people.
Maciel’s victims have also revealed that Father Álvaro Corcuera, General Director of the Legionaries, has paid visits to them to apologize on behalf of the congregation.
Furthermore, the congregation reported in a statement on December 5 that in the congregation’s history, 35 priests have been accused of having sexually abused children aged 18 years or younger; nine of them were found guilty (including the founder), two were deemed unsuitable for investigation when the complaint was issued, ten were still in the process of being investigated, and 14 were found innocent.
Now, as writes Father Juan Sabadell – one of the priests attending the general chapter meeting – the “purification of memory” cannot end here; the apology must be extended to those who were attacked by the Legionaries for telling the truth.
In addition, this apology should also be extended to the victims of Maciel’s “system of power,” which are much more numerous than the victims impacted by sexual abuse. Many people, especially older consecrated religious of Regnum Christi, are today subjected to intense therapeutic treatments because of the psychological burden of the founder’s “conscience control” mechanism.
5. What does the future hold for the Legionaries of Christ?
Both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have publicly expressed their desire for the purification and renewal of this religious family, and this renewal begins with the meeting of the general chapter. The chapter’s success will depend largely on the renewed freedom of spirit and enthusiasm of the members of this religious family.
The answer to this question is in the hands of the chapter’s participants. Its deliberations can be followed (in Spanish) through the following page: http://capitulogeneral.legionariosdecristo.org.
Are there other questions or items that the general chapter of the Legionaries of Christ ought to consider? Feel free to post them in the comment box.