The Legionaries of
Christ: Fr. Maciel's
Trial Draws Nearer
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has begun a preliminary
investigation and has interviewed dozens of new witnesses – who have
filled pages with new accusations
by Sandro Magister
May 20, 2005 – Last April 2, just as John Paul II was dying in Rome, in
New York the promoter of justice for the Vatican Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith, Charles J. Scicluna, from Malta, was
interviewing Paul Lennon, the former headmaster of a "School of Faith"
run by the Legionaries of Christ. Mr. Lennon, who is Irish, is now a
psychotherapist in Alexandria, Virginia, and a witness against one of
the most revered and powerful men of the Catholic Church worldwide: Fr.
Marcial Maciel Degollado, 85, from Mexico, the founder of the
Legionaries and the apple of pope Karol Wojtyla's eye.
With 650 priests, 2,500 students of theology, 1,000 consecrated
laypeople, 30,000 active members in twenty nations, and dozens of
high-level schools and universities – two of which are in Rome; one of
pontifical right, inaugurated in 2002, the Regina Apostolorum; and
another which has just been recognized by the Italian government, the
European University of Rome – the Legionaries of Christ are a
staggering success story.
Last November 30 (see photo), John Paul II publicly embraced their
founder, Maciel, and congratulated him on his 60th anniversary of
priestly ordination, in the jubilant atmosphere of a Vatican audience
hall filled to bursting with thousands of Legionaries and militants of
Regnum Christi, the order's parallel lay association.
Four days earlier, on the 26th, pope Wojtyla had given over to the
"care and management" of the Legionaries nothing less than the
Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem, a substantial meeting
place and center of hospitality owned by the Holy See and located just
a few steps away from the Holy Sepulchre.
But meanwhile, in another Vatican building, that of the former Holy
Office, the then cardinal prefect Joseph Ratzinger had just told
Scicluna, his promoter of justice, to pull from the congregation's
shelves all of the trials still on the waiting list and in danger of
never being processed. The order was: "Every case must take its proper
Among the folders was one six years old and marked, in Latin:
"Absolutionis complicis. Arturo Jurado et alii – Rev. Marcial Maciel
Degollado." The first phrase describes the charge, the second gives the
name of the first of the accusers, and the third is the name of the
accused. The alleged crime, the absolution of an accomplice in
confession, is one of the most terrible for the Church, so much so that
it has no statute of limitations.
A few days later, on December 2, Martha Wegan, an Austrian living
in Rome and working as a lawyer for the Holy See in the canonical
forum, sent a letter asking Arturo Jurado, José Barba Martin,
Vaca, three of Fr. Maciel's eight accusers, if they intended to confirm
their request for a canonical investigation. They had submitted the
request to the Vatican on October 17, 1998, delivering it by hand to
the undersecretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at
the time, Gianfranco Girotti.
The three responded in the affirmative. Wegan communicated their
reply to the promoter of justice, Scicluna. He opened the preliminary
investigation on the denunciations in his possession: years and years
of sexual abuse committed by Fr. Maciel against his accusers, all of
them former Legionaries, when they were young and under his guidance at
the seminary in Rome. The charge was made heavier by the accusation
that he had then absolved them in confession.
* * *
The denunciations of the eight men
appeared for the first time on February 23, 1997, in the Connecticut
newspaper "The Hartford Courant," in an article by Jason Berry and
Gerald Renner. At the time, the firestorm of reports in the United
States of sexual abuse committed by priests on children and young
people had still not broken out. But this was the forewarning.
What was striking, apart from the gravity of the accusations, was
the personalities of the accusers: professionals, lawyers, accomplished
university professors. Some of them had held high offices in Fr.
Maciel's organization. One of them, Félix Alarcón, had
Legionaries' first outpost in the United States. Another, Vaca, had
been president of the Legionaries in the U.S. from 1971 to 1976. In
1978 and again in 1989, he had sent two private declarations to John
Paul II, accusing Maciel of having abused him when he was a teenager.
In both cases, he received no reply. Partly for this reason, he and the
other seven finally decided to make all of it public, and to submit
their denunciation to the Vatican in 1998.
As a target of these defaming accusations, Fr. Maciel has always
defended himself by denying them outright. But he has also
Against his accusers, he brings up the fact that at the beginning
there was a ninth accuser together with the other eight, Miguel Diaz
Rivera, a former Legionary who is now a professor in Oaxaca. He later
retracted his accusation and stated that the others had induced him to
make false charges.
Three other former Legionaries – Armando Arias Sanchez, Valente
Velázquez, and Jorge Luis González Limón – are
said to be ready to
testify that they underwent pressure to maintain untrue accusations.
But the main argument that Fr. Maciel enlists is the result of a
previous Vatican investigation against him, from which he emerged
It was 1956, and eighteen accusations had been lodged against
Maciel, including that of drug addiction. The Holy Office dismissed him
from all of his duties, sent him away from Rome, and interviewed his
followers one by one.
Among these were also the men who 42 years later would accuse
Maciel of sexual abuse committed against them during that same period
of the 1950's. But they said nothing of it then.
The investigation lasted until February of 1959, and ended with the
absolution of the accused and his restoration to his duties. The
Legionaries of Christ now exhibit two letters of full support for Fr.
Maciel written by one of the inspectors at the time, Chilean bishop
Cirilo Polidoro van Vlierberghe, now 96 years old.
* * *
In reality, not all the leaders of the
Legion have always agreed about how to face the new trial that has been
looming over Maciel since 1998. Some of them say that its failure to
request the immediate processing of the trial has harmed the Legion
rather than helped it. In the face of verbal accusations dealing with
events that took place long ago, with no objective confirmation, and
issued by a group of former members who are in their turn accused of
"attacking Fr. Maciel in order to attack the Church and the pope," a
verdict of absolution would have been certain.
But today this certainty is not as solid as it once was. Last
January 23, at the chapter that meets every twelve years to nominate
the director general of the Legionaries of Christ, the election did not
go to Fr. Maciel, as it always had before, but to a much younger man,
Álvaro Corcuera Martínez del Rio, 47, from Mexico. The
general staff of
the Legionaries denies that this event was connected with the trial.
But the fact remains that since the trial was put into motion through
Ratzinger's initiative, Maciel has no longer held any official post in
the Legion he founded.
And the sequence of recent events seems to have turned against him.
On March 25, Good Friday, in the meditations for the Stations of the
Cross at the Coliseum, Ratzinger lamented "how much filth there is in
the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to
belong entirely to [Christ]” and offered a glimpse of an energetic
re-purification. During those same days, his promoter of justice,
Scicluna, was leaving for America to investigate the accusations
against Maciel. He arrived in New York on April 2, and interviewed not
only Vaca, one of the eight who issued the canonical denunciation, but
also another important former Legionary, Lennon, who confirmed the
accusations of the former with his own testimony relating to more
recent years. On the 4th Scicluna arrived in Mexico City, where he
continued his interviews until April 10. He spent a total of twelve
hours listening to the two formal issuers of the canonical
denunciation, Jurado and Barba Martin. He also interviewed the rest of
the eight, except for Fernando Pérez Olvera, who sent him a
account. But above all, he interviewed many new witnesses from Mexico,
the United States, Ireland, and Spain, some of whom had been
Legionaries until just a few years ago. They all added new accusations
to the investigation, not only against Maciel, but also against younger
leaders in the Legion, always for the same “filth.”
With Scicluna was a priest taking dictation. He kept a written
transcript of each testimony, and at the end had this checked and
approved by the witness. When the two returned to the Vatican in
mid-April, they had on their agenda the names of twenty former
Legionaries in Spain and Ireland who had asked to be interviewed.
Scicluna might soon visit these two countries. In any case, he will as
promoter of justice prepare a report with his concluding proposals at
the end of his preliminary investigation. The Vatican authorities will
decide on the basis of this whether or not to begin a real and proper
If it were up to cardinal secretary of state Angelo Sodano, a great
protector of Maciel and the Legionaries of Christ, this trial would
never take place. But Ratzinger has been elected pope, and he will have
the last word.
Benedict XVI has elected as the new prefect of the Congregation for
the Doctrine of the Faith the archbishop of San Francisco, William J.
Levada, one of the four bishops in the United States responsible for
the effort against sexual abuse committed by priests.
Two days before the conclave, on April 16, Ratzinger met Cardinal
Francis George of Chicago, a great proponent of his election and an
even more decisive supporter of a rigorous approach to purifying the
Church of this scourge. Ratzinger assured him of his support.
As George was kissing the newly elected pope’s ring, Benedict XVI told
him he would keep that promise.
Return to Originating
Article as published by Espress On Line
The accusations in the Maciel case are most accurately reported in this
book published in the United States:
Jason Berry and Gerald Renner, “Vows of Silence. The Abuse of
Power in the Papacy of John Paul II., Free Press, New York, 2004, pp.
A defense can be found on this ad hoc website of the Legionaries of
Christ, in English and Spanish:
Go to the English home page of
www.chiesa.espressonline.it, to access the latest articles and
links to other resources.