Vatican Disciplines Legionaries' Founder

By Alan Cooperman and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 19, 2006; 12:21 PM

The Vatican announced today that it has taken disciplinary action against the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado after a decade-long investigation of sex abuse allegations, instructing the elderly Mexican priest to stop conducting his ministry in public and retire to "a reserved life of prayer and penitence."

The sanction against Maciel, 86, represented the first major decision by Pope Benedict XVI regarding sexual abuse charges since he was elected in April last year following the death of Pope John Paul II. Maciel, who was close to John Paul and is venerated by many Catholics around the world, has long denied accusations by former seminarians that he abused them decades ago when they were boys.

The order he founded, the Legion of Christ, said in a statement from Mexico that Maciel had already "affirmed his innocence." But it said he nevertheless accepted the Vatican's instruction "with faith, complete serenity and tranquility of conscience." The statement said Maciel views the decision as "a new cross that God, the Father of Mercy, has allowed him to suffer and that will obtain many graces for the Legion of Christ."

The Vatican statement announcing the sanction did not say specifically whether the investigation had found the abuse allegations against Maciel to be true. It said that because of Maciel's advanced age and frailty, the Vatican had decided not to subject him to a full-fledged church trial called a "canonical process."

The Vatican called on Maciel to renounce public ministry, meaning that he cannot celebrate Mass or other sacraments in public.

The censure was first reported yesterday by the National Catholic Reporter newspaper in a dispatch from Rome. The paper said the pope had restricted Maciel's capacity to celebrate public Masses, to give lectures or other public presentations, and to speak to the news media.

The action "amounts to a finding that at least some of the accusations against the charismatic 86-year-old Mexican priest are well-founded," NCR Vatican correspondent John L. Allen Jr. wrote. He called Maciel "perhaps the highest-profile priest in the Catholic church to be disciplined for allegations of sexual abuse."

Maciel is the founder of the Legion of Christ, a worldwide order of more than 650 priests and 2,500 seminarians, and of Regnum Christi, an affiliated movement of lay people that says it has 70,000 members around the world.

Both groups are built around the aging priest's "charism," a church term for exceptional spiritual gifts and mission. Thus, a finding that he was not an exemplar of purity, but rather a serial abuser of boys as young as 10, could be devastating to his following.

"The real question the Vatican now faces is what do you do about the Legion, an organization that is founded on a lie, a myth about the founder," said Jason Berry, co-author of a 2004 book and forthcoming documentary film, both titled "Vows of Silence," about the Maciel case.

The Legion and its supporters have long maintained that Maciel is an innocent victim of a conspiracy by people opposed to his doctrinal conservatism. In 2002, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the Catholic journal "First Things," wrote that "after a scrupulous examination of the claims and counter-claims, I have arrived at a moral certainty that the charges are false and malicious."

The complaints of sexual abuse came to light in the 1990s, when nine former members of the Legion, including several priests, charged that Maciel had molested them from the 1940s into the 1960s.

They filed the allegations with church authorities rather than in civil courts, and the Vatican began an investigation. It was halted in 1999 by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict. The case was reopened in 2004, when a church prosecutor collected testimony from more alleged victims.

The eventual number of accusers was "more than 20, but less than 100," the National Catholic Reporter said. Yet the investigation appeared to be over in May 2005, when the Vatican secretary of state's office announced there was no church legal proceeding planned against Maciel. The Legion asserted that he had been fully exonerated.

Maciel stepped down as head of the Legion last year and moved from Rome to his home town of Cotija, Mexico.

Some Vatican watchers attributed the on-again, off-again investigation to John Paul's personal support for the Legion and its founder. Maciel accompanied the pope on trips to Mexico in 1979, 1990 and 1993. John Paul lavishly praised Maciel on several occasions, appointed him as a delegate to three synods and repeatedly invited him to dinner at the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City.

One of the accusers, Juan José Vaca, said in a telephone interview yesterday that Maciel had received "special treatment for many, many years" and should be removed from the priesthood as a "real criminal." The reported sanctions, he said, are "just a slap on the wrist."

Berry said, however, that in his opinion "what Pope Benedict did shows a measure of courage, the likes of which we have not seen in recent years from the Vatican on this issue."

Special correspondent Sarah Delaney in Rome contributed to this report.

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