Vatican Reportedly Clears Priest

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 23, 2005

The Legion of Christ, a rapidly growing Roman Catholic order with 650 priests and 2,500 seminarians in 20 countries, said over the weekend that a Vatican investigation has cleared its founder of sexual abuse allegations.

But alleged victims and their supporters said yesterday that they doubted the Legion's statement and were waiting for official notification from the Holy See.

"It is very hard to believe, because we don't have any document -- only these people's words. They can say anything they want," said Juan Jose Vaca, 68, of New York City.

Vaca, a former priest, is one of at least eight men in Mexico and the United States who have accused the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado of molesting them when they were teenage seminary students in the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

Maciel, 85, who retired in January and lives in Rome, had been a powerful figure in the Catholic Church for decades. He was a friend of Pope John Paul II, who strongly backed the Legion and other renewal movements, such as Opus Dei, that demonstrated loyalty to the Vatican and success in evangelizing.

At the same time, Maciel has long been dogged by various allegations. Between 1956 and 1959, church officials investigated, and ultimately cleared him of, accusations of drug abuse.

In 1998, the papal nuncio in Mexico City encouraged several men who had accused Maciel of sexual abuse to make their case through the church's internal tribunals rather than in civil courts.

With the help of eminent canon lawyers, they filed allegations that Maciel not only molested them but also, in at least four cases, gave them absolution for sexual sins in which he was complicit. Under church law, that is a grave violation of the sacrament of confession and, unlike sex abuse, carries no statute of limitations.

After their complaint was formally accepted for investigation, it was shelved without explanation in 1999 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. But the allegations were kept alive by investigative reporters, including the authors of three books in Spain, a bestseller in Mexico and "Vows of Silence," a critically acclaimed 2004 book by Americans Jason Berry and Gerald Renner.

Last December, the investigation was suddenly reopened by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department formerly headed by Benedict. Its promoter of justice, or chief prosecutor, Monsignor Charles J. Scicluna, traveled to the United States and Mexico to meet with more than 30 people in April.

Vaca said in a telephone interview yesterday that Scicluna spent six hours with him on April 2 and took a sworn deposition in the presence of a Vatican notary. When it was over, Vaca said, the prosecutor was clearly moved and told him the church owed Maciel's victims an apology.

"He said he was convinced that everything I said was absolutely the truth," Vaca said. "I said, 'I hope this time you honor your word.' "

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