An exclusive interview with a leader of the organization, who rejects as "unworthy of credibility" the accusations against their founder. But the accusers are fighting back - and they´re taking their case to the United Nations
by Sandro Magister
ROMA -- The Legionaries of Christ are a success story in the Catholic Church´s recent history. Their numbers tell the story: 500 priests, another 2,500 seminarians, 1,000 consecrated lay persons, and 30,000 active members in twenty nations. And all in a very short time. But meanwhile serious accusations strike at their very founder, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado (in the photo, center), a Mexican the same age as John Paul II and very much esteemed and protected by him.This is the first interview in which the head of the Legionaries has agreed to respond point by point to the criticisms. The authorized interviewee is Father Miguel Cavallé Puig, a Spaniard of the Catalan region, member of the general secretariat of the Legionaries and president of the Fondazione Villagio dei Ragazzi.
Father, what is the secret of the astonishing growth of the Legionaries of Christ?
"Astonishing, I don´t know. But certainly within the general vocations crisis of many religious institutes our growth prompts admiration. We don´t have any secret weapon. We simply offer young people the proper means for discovering the call to God and to the consecrated life. But moreover it´s God who does it. He sends his workers where he wishes."Yours is a name of battle. Against what enemy?"I would say rather: in favor of whom? We want to be a legion of peace, to go into the whole world to preach the Good News, to bring Christian salvation to all men, beginning with the most needy."
But this is valid for all Christians. In what way are you different?
"Through a particular spirit of dynamism. We are always fighting. We don´t get discouraged before difficulties. Our founder, Father Marcial Maciel, has taught us never to rest."While you see the Church as too weak, relaxed, in need of reawakening? "John Paul II is the first to ask everyone to put themselves to the task with resolution. He says, above all to young people, that this is not the time to be idle. The Legionaries of Christ was born more than 60 years ago, but its development coincides with this pontificate. We apply the teachings of the pope."
You began in Mexico, but immediately you headed for Rome. Why?
"Because we want to be near the pope, even physically. Near and faithful."
In which countries are you most present?
"Most of all in Mexico. Then in the United States and Brazil. They are the countries that give us the most vocations."
You seem to want to conquer most of all society´s elite. Why?
"The biggest institution we have in Italy is the Villagio dei Ragazzi di Maddaloni, in the region of Campania, for poor and needy children. The Legionaries have an apostolate with everyone, without distinctions. It´s true that we dedicate ourselves to the formation of persons who, because of their resources, are able to facilitate the diffusion of the Gospel message. But it doesn´t seem to me that this can be called elitism. Even Jesus paid particular attention to the twelve apostles."
Your young priests receive a formation that is long and severe, but also very separated from the outside world. Don´t you think that this isolation brings risks?
"It´s true that the formation is long. It lasts twelve or thirteen years beyond high school, because it is not easy to be a priest today, and one needs to prepare oneself well. I wouldn´t say severe, but it is demanding and disciplined, however, always in serenity and cheerfulness. As far as isolation is concerned I would say no. The formation is not only study and prayer. It also includes three or four years of apostolate in direct contact with the people."
For the Legionaries everything seems to revolve around the founder. There are those who accuse you of having a personality cult."
He who knows us well knows that it is not like that. A congregation like ours, present in twenty countries throughout the world in which seven different languages are spoken, cannot but depend in everything on one person in that he is able and charismatic. We love our founder as the Franciscans love Saint Francis and the Salesians love Saint John Bosco. Loving the founder is even a duty of justice and gratitude for what he has given us."
Is there a special bond that joins you to him? A fourth vow in addition to the three classical vows of poverty, chastity and obedience?"
Our additional vows are two. The first is that of charity. It binds us to not criticize anyone, and in particular the superiors, because gossiping is an action as opposed to Christianity as one can be. Naturally one can tell what doesn´t seem to him suitable regarding the governance of a superior. But it´s also just that he says it to the superior himself or to someone who can resolve the situation, i.e. another superior with even higher authority, without creating discord among those who objectively cannot resolve the case. The second added vow is that of humility. It binds us to not aspire to positions of government within the congregation, that we may become religious in serving."
There is only one book by your founder in circulation. Why do you use his other writings only internally?
"The book is about the formation of priests and was requested of Father Maciel before the synod of bishops dedicated to this theme, on which our founder is held to be very competent. The other writings were not intended for publication. They are personal letters written through the years to Legionaries or members of Regnum Christi, to encourage and to give direction, sort of as Saint Paul wrote to the first Christian communities. Some of these letters have been organized according to topics of general interest and printed. In our institutions they are at the disposition of everyone, even those outside."
Why don´t you open your archives?
"We are a young order, our founder is still living, and we don´t have a real and proper archive. Beyond the letters of the first period - that of the founding -- there is nothing in particular to be found. Information about who we are, our history, and our activities, is present on our web sites."
But there are already histories on other religious movements even more recent, while there is nothing on the Legionaries.
"To tell the truth we are also thinking about writing and publishing our history. But I cannot say when."
Meanwhile in Spain a book was released about you that is very critical.
"I haven´t read it."
And in Mexico another has been released, written by a former Legionary who accuses the founder of having sexually abused him in the fifties.
"I haven´t read this one either. I am told it is a repetition of old accusations."
But the accusers are eight, not one, all of them important former Legionaries. Why doesn´t the Vatican open the case, as it does in all similar situations?
"Because already during the period of the presumed actions, the fifties, the Holy See had investigated serious accusations that were made against Father Maciel. The charges were of various kinds. And regarding all of them, after very attentive inquiries by apostolic visitors, the total innocence of our founder was demonstrated. During that time even the current accusers were interviewed, but none of them said what they have said decades later in the current defamatory campaign. And they didn´t speak then because, in effect, nothing had happened. If then the Vatican has not opened the case on the new denunciation it is because the accusations are unsupported. One of the accusers has retracted. Another sent his daughter without fear to one of our schools until 1996. Other former Legionaries have said that they were approached to make false testimony against Father Maciel. Finally, there exist numerous letters and some manuscripts written by these persons to Father Maciel many years after the presumed actions, which show great friendship, appreciation and gratitude for him. This is enough to demonstrate that we are dealing with accusations unworthy of credibility."
But now the accusers have even made a denunciation to the Human Rights of Children and Youth Committee of the United Nations.
"And against whom?"
Against the Vatican, because they would cover up the crime.
"I didn´t know this. But you see? Here one understands that the true target of the accusations is not so much Father Maciel, but the church, and the pope."
And you don´t defend yourselves?
"No. Father Maciel has always taught us that our principal virtue has to be charity, which means pardon and understanding. And further, there is so much to do that we don´t have time to be preoccupied with accusations that don´t correspond to the truth. Believe me, the sufferings of these persons concern us and we pay attention to what they say about us, but I repeat, theirs are not credible accusations. Therefore we prefer to invest every minute in doing good, in evangelization, in serving our brothers. Today there are few priests, but there is always much, very much, apostolic work."