Vatican Quietly Scuttles Abuse Probe
By GERALD RENNER
Special To The Courant
May 24 2005
The Vatican announcement that no action will be taken against the
founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a conservative religious order,
has stunned those who accuse him of having sexually abused young
seminarians in his charge years ago.
decision announced by the Vatican Press Office short-circuits normal
church procedures to reach a resolution in the case against the Rev.
Marcial Maciel Degollado.
Neither the men making the accusations
nor their canon lawyer in Rome had been told of the decision as of
Monday, said one of the accusers, Juan Vaca, of Holbrooke, N.Y., a
former Legionary priest who once headed the order in the United States.
now an adjunct professor of psychology and sociology at Mercy College,
Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., said he felt betrayed. "I am more than upset," he
said. "I've lost all faith in the church."
Maciel, 85, the
Mexican founder and recently retired head of the Legionaries of Christ,
recently was the subject of an intense preliminary investigation by a
high-level Vatican agency known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith, formerly headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope
The case against Maciel gained wider attention
when Ratzinger became pope. As a cardinal, Ratzinger had been in charge
of handling sexual abuse allegations, and observers were looking to
this case as a test of how seriously the Vatican will pursue
allegations such as those that have roiled the church in America.
now lives in Rome and enjoyed favored status under Pope John Paul II,
who often praised him for his work in building an order of more than
600 priests, a reported 2,500 seminarians, a dozen major universities,
and a network of elite schools. The Legionaries has its U.S.
headquarters in Orange and a seminary in Cheshire.
Charles J. Scicluna, a priest from Malta who is "permanent promoter of
justice," a type of prosecutor for the congregation, gave new life to
the canon law case against Maciel last December while Ratzinger was
still in charge.
His orders were to help clean up the backlog of
sex abuse cases. The case against Maciel had been lying dormant for
nearly six years. Scicluna contacted Martha Wegan, the Vatican-approved
canon lawyer who was an advocate for eight former Legion seminarians
who alleged that Maciel had sexually abused them when they were
teenagers in the 1940s, '50s and '60s.
Wegan wrote a letter on
Dec. 2, 2004, to three of the leading accusers, saying that Scicluna
"telephoned me asking if you ... want to pursue the suit or not." The
men replied that they did.
On Jan. 23, the Legion announced that
Maciel was retiring but that his retirement had nothing to do with the
In April, Scicluna traveled to the United
States and Mexico, where he personally interviewed more than 30 people,
including seven of the eight men who made the accusations, as well as
several others claiming abuse who had not publicly come forward before.
one of Maciel's accusers, said Scicluna told him that he believed him
and the others and that "the church owed us a public apology."
who entered the order as a 10-year-old boy and was president of the
Legion in the United States from 1971 to 1976, said he had been abused
by Maciel for more than a decade. He submitted written complaints to
Pope John Paul II in 1978 and again in 1989 but got no response. He had
lost all trust in Vatican officials, he said, but had renewed hope when
Scicluna appeared to be doing a serious investigation.
Barba, a Harvard-trained professor of Latin American studies at
Instituto Tecnological Autonomio de Mexico in Mexico City, who also
made accusations against Maciel, told Jason Berry, reporting for the
National Catholic Reporter: "We are the victims and we have been
telling the truth. If the Holy See does not make a declaration of the
truth, we stand in limbo. Is that justice?"
Announcement by the
Vatican Press Office on Friday that there will be "no canonical
process" against Maciel was never conveyed personally to the men making
the charges nor to Wegan, their Vatican-approved lawyer in Rome.
came about indirectly after the Italian newsweekly L'Espresso published
an article in its May 20 edition by veteran religion writer Sandro
Magister recapitulating the case against Maciel and reporting on
Scicluna's visit to the United States and Mexico. In response, the
Legionaries of Christ in Rome released a statement saying that "there
is no canonical process under way into our founder ... nor will one be
Catholic News Service, an agency of the American
bishops, reported on Friday that the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, a Vatican
spokesman, confirmed the Legion statement after he was asked about it.
The New York Times on Sunday quoted Benedettini as saying, "There is no
investigation now, and it is not foreseeable that there will be another
investigation in the future."
His statements to the Catholic
News Service and the Times made no reference to Scicluna's interviewing
more than 30 people or how that squared with his statement that there
was no investigation. He did not say why the process was stopped and
did not say that Maciel was exonerated.
Scicluna and others in
the doctrinal office involved in the investigation, bound by a vow of
secrecy, are not allowed to comment. Whether he was allowed to finish
his report and whether Pope Benedict read it are unanswered questions.
Wegan also is not permitted to comment as a condition of working as a
The Legionaries' statement said:
"We hold no grudge against those who accuse us; rather, we keep them in
our prayers while expressing our humblest gratitude to the countless
people of good will who in these circumstances have reiterated to us
their support and esteem."
The statement also quoted Maciel as
denying the accusations: "I can categorically state that the
accusations brought against me are false. I never engaged in the sort
of repulsive behavior these men accuse me of."
In church law,
sexual abuse charges have an effective statute of limitations of 10
years, but that can be waived by the pope. The most serious charge
against Maciel, however, has no limitation - that he absolved in
confession some of the boys he is accused of abusing. That amounts in
canon law to a sacrilege of the sacrament of penance, which incurs an
automatic excommunication, or expulsion, from the Catholic Church.
charges were made public for the first time in February 1997 in an
article in The Courant. In 1998, the men - all professionals comprising
five Mexicans, two Mexican-Americans and a Spaniard - filed their case
under church law. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
accepted the complaint as credible for further investigation but never
proceeded, and no investigation was made.
David Clohessy of St.
Louis, director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which
has long been agitating for Vatican attention to the accusations
against Maciel, expressed outrage at the latest development.
transparent whitewash aborts the church's legal system to the benefit
of a notorious pedophile and the harm of brave, persistent victims," he
said in a statement. "Pope Benedict has forfeited all credibility on
the single most serious crisis in the church."
He continued: "It
borders on cruelty to inexplicably close, re-open years later, then
suddenly and inexplicably close this Vatican sex abuse investigation
again, while issuing no findings, taking no action."
Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant