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Gerald A. Renner; Religion Journalist

Veteran religion journalist Gerald A. Renner conducted investigations into alleged sex abuse by the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a secretive and influential Catholic order.
Veteran religion journalist Gerald A. Renner conducted investigations into alleged sex abuse by the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a secretive and influential Catholic order. (Na - Na)

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 25, 2007

Gerald A. Renner, 75, a religion journalist who helped uncover sex abuse allegations against the founder of a secretive Catholic order -- the Legionaries of Christ -- and whose work was credited with halting the leader's priestly career, died Oct. 24 at Norwalk Hospital in Connecticut. He had abdominal cancer.

Mr. Renner, a veteran editor and reporter, had also done public relations work for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and had been a vice president of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

He was a religion writer at the Hartford Courant when he teamed in 1996 with freelance investigative reporter Jason Berry, who had written about sex abuse in the Catholic clergy.

They worked on several high-profile articles for the Courant about the Legionaries of Christ, which has its U.S. headquarters in Connecticut. Their reportage culminated in the book "Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II" (2004).

The authors highlighted decades worth of allegations by former Legionaries of Christ seminarians who accused the founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, of sexual abuse and were frustrated by the church's silence on the matter.

Maciel, who was born in Mexico, had ingratiated himself with many in the church hierarchy, especially Pope John Paul II, who once praised his "paternal affection and his experience."

Maciel was regarded as a master fundraiser and recruiter for the church, and he shared with the pope a deep conservatism. Yet criticism persisted that he ran a cult-like organization that cut its members off from their families. The order now claims to have 700 priests and 2,500 seminarians in 20 countries.

Maciel was the subject of periodic church investigations into abuse, but no explanation or findings were ever publicly disclosed.

David Gibson, an award-winning religion reporter and author, said the book was "the real trigger" that led Pope Benedict XVI to discipline Maciel in May 2006. The pope asked Maciel, who was then 86 and who had founded his order in 1941, to relinquish his public ministry and devote himself to "a reserved life of penitence and prayer."

In their book, Berry and Mr. Renner explored what they considered a coverup of Maciel's alleged sex abuses as well as the punishment of one priest who tried to expose wrongdoing.

Writing in the New York Times, journalist Christopher Caldwell said the book was effective in conveying the emotional and legal struggles of alleged abuse victims.

Gerald Anthony Renner was born June 5, 1932, in Philadelphia. He served in the Navy in the early 1950s and was a 1959 graduate of Georgetown University.

After graduation, Mr. Renner spent seven years at the Reading Eagle in Pennsylvania and specialized in coverage of organized crime.

He left in 1965 for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington and later worked for the New York-based Religion News Service. He held the position of editor and director when he joined the Hartford Courant in 1984. He became a freelance religion writer after retiring from the Courant in 2000.

Mr. Renner went to parochial schools and, after a career covering religion, he became an agnostic in his later years. He was working on a memoir he planned to call "My Journey to Apostasy."

Survivors include his wife of 50 years, Jacquelyn Breen Renner of Norwalk; five children, Margaret Lidz of Landenberg, Pa., Anne Victoria Canevari of Stratford, Conn., Mary Yordon of Norwalk, Andrea Ipaktchi of Paris and Jack Renner of Manhattan, N.Y.; a brother, Richard Renner of Lutherville, Md.; and 10 grandchildren.


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