Marcial Maciel, 87; Founded Controversial Legionaries of Christ

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 1, 2008

Marcial Maciel, 87, who founded the powerful and secretive Legionaries of Christ religious order and was removed from ministry by Pope Benedict XVI because of sex-abuse allegations, died Jan. 30.

The Legionaries, which has its U.S. headquarters in Connecticut, would not disclose how or where he died, according to the Associated Press.

Rev. Maciel, who started the order in his native Mexico in 1941, had highly placed allies in the Catholic Church's hierarchy, including the late Pope John Paul II, who once praised his "paternal affection and his experience."

Rev. Maciel was a master fundraiser and recruiter, and he shared with John Paul a deep conservatism on social and theological matters. But he faced persistent criticism from ex-members of his order, who called it a cultlike organization that cut its members off from their families. His pursuit of wealthy, politically connected patrons led some Mexicans to joke that the order's followers were the "Millionaires of Christ."

Rev. Maciel was the subject of periodic church investigations into allegations of sexual abuse of seminarians and young priests in the 1940s and 1950s, but no explanation or findings were publicly disclosed. The situation began to change in 1996 with investigations by Hartford Courant reporters Gerald Renner and Jason Berry, both experts on the Catholic Church. Their reportage on the Legionaries 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 Rev. Maciel of sexual abuse and were frustrated by the church's silence on the matter. Renner and Berry explored what they considered a coverup of sex abuses by Maciel as well as the punishment of one priest who is said to have tried to expose wrongdoing.

Soon eight accusers -- former members of the order, many of them prominent professionals -- went public with accusations against Rev. Maciel, who maintained his innocence.

David Gibson, a religion reporter and author, told The Washington Post in October that the book was "the real trigger" that led Benedict to discipline Rev. Maciel in 2006.

The pope asked Rev. Maciel, who was then 86, to relinquish his public ministry and devote himself to "a reserved life of penitence and prayer." The pope declined to pursue further proceedings against the priest because of his age.

Marcial Maciel Degollado was born March 10, 1920, in Cotija de la Paz in the southwestern Mexican state of Michoac¿n.

His father was a prosperous sugar mill owner and rancher, whom Rev. Maciel described in a 2003 book-length interview, "Christ Is My Life," as "an honest man, faithful to his personal and Christian commitments, very much a man of conscience."

The Renner-Berry book says that the young Marcial and his father had a troubled relationship and that the future priest was much closer to his mother, whom he proposed for sainthood under her maiden name. Rev. Maciel was said to have told aides not to begin his canonization process until 30 years after his death.

Four of Rev. Maciel's uncles were bishops, and one was a general. Rev. Maciel was reported to have been enthralled with militarism and religious discipline from a young age.

Rev. Maciel was running the Legionaries when one of his uncles ordained him in 1944. The order stressed anti-Communism and strict discipline and became a force in opposition to the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s.

Rev. Maciel was considered charming and found wealthy supporters in Mexico and Spain, whose dictator, Francisco Franco, he was said to have admired. He established seminaries in both countries and clashed with Jesuits because of the Legionaries' tendency to recruit from other orders.

In 1946, Rev. Maciel won his first papal audience, with Pope Pius XII, who told him that his order must be "an army in battle array." Three years later, Rev. Maciel formed a lay movement, Regnum Christi, which is flourishing.

He gained wide respect at the Vatican for starting low-cost universities.

Renner and Berry wrote that John Paul also saw the Legionaries as an effective bulwark against rapidly expanding evangelical Protestant groups in Latin America as well as priests following Liberation Theology, a sociopolitical movement aligned with the poor against right-wing governments.

Rev. Maciel successfully courted Latin America's wealthiest families. Among those to help underwrite his causes was the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Rev. Maciel was comfortable in this social orbit, writing in 2006 that "the order concentrates on ministering to the wealthy and powerful in the belief that by evangelizing society's leaders, the beneficial impact on society is multiplied. . . . Like the Jesuits who centuries ago whispered in the ear of Europe's princes, the Legion's priests today are the confessors and chaplains to some of the most powerful businessmen in Latin America."

Rev. Maciel accompanied John Paul on several of his trips to Mexico and sat on papal commissions and committees. He spent his last several years living quietly in his native village.

The order claims to have 700 priests and 2,500 seminarians in 20 countries.

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