A commissioner appointed by the Vatican will take command of the Legionaries of Christ, orphans of their founder Marcial Maciel, disgraced by scandals. This is the likely outcome of eight months of investigation. Many things should be changed, including the current leaders
by Sandro Magister
ROME, March 16, 2010 – In the thick of the storm rocking the Catholic Church on account of the sexual abuse committed against minors by priests, an end has come to the apostolic visit ordered by the Holy See among the Legionaries of Christ, the congregation founded by Marcial Maciel.
The Maciel case is extreme in every way. It pushes the contrast between image and reality to exaggerated limits. Between the beatified image of the priest founder of an ultra-orthodox, ascetical, devout religious congregation, flourishing with vocations, some of them exemplary, and the reality of a dissolute second life, made up of incessant violations not only of the vows but of the commandments, of continual sinful affairs with women, men, and minors of every age and condition, with children and lovers all over the world, their number still unknown.
A second life that even at the moment of death appeared to sink deeper into the sulfurous fumes. Morbid stories have leaked out about Maciel's last days in Houston, at the end of January 2008, before his burial in Cotija, his birthplace, in Mexico.
The apostolic visit began on July 15, 2009. And the five bishop visitors fulfilled their mandate halfway through this month of March, with the delivery of their report to the Vatican authorities. They were Ricardo Watti Urquidi, bishop of Tepic in Mexico; Charles J. Chaput, archbishop of Denver; Giuseppe Versaldi, bishop of Alessandria; Ricardo Ezzato Andrello, archbishop of Concepción in Chile; and Ricardo Blázquez Pérez, archbishop of Valladolid.
It will be the Vatican authorities who decide what to do. The three cardinals charged with the case are Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of state, William J. Levada, prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, and Franc Rodé, prefect of the congregation for institutes of consecrated life.
But the last word will belong to Benedict XVI, the most prescient of all. Even before he was elected pope and when Maciel still had very powerful protectors in the Vatican, Joseph Ratzinger ordered an extensive investigation of the accusations against the founder of the Legionaries. And as pope, on May 19, 2006, he sentenced him to "a retired life of prayer and penance."
After this sentence, the congregation of the Legionaries bowed to the papal command. But it continued to show veneration to its founding "father," as an "innocent victim" of false accusations.
It was only after his death and the revelation of other scandals that the directors of the congregation acknowledged some of their founder's sins, but without denying the goodness of his work.
Still today, after the eight-month apostolic visit, Maciel's successor as director general of the congregation, Fr. Álvaro Corcuera, and vicar general Luis Garza Medina – who were also for decades, especially the latter of them, very close collaborators of the founder – show no intention of leaving their command. And neither do any of the other high and mid-level directors, central or peripheral.
Their defense is that they were always unaware of Maciel's second life, and that their fidelity to the Church and to the pope, in addition to their leadership experience, are the best guarantees for the congregation's continuity.
Last February 5, in "L'Osservatore Romano," Fr. Luis Garza Medina, unruffled, published an article describing the "virtuous life" of the ideal priest. He who more than anyone else lived side by side with Maciel, knowing all his secrets and managing his money, and who always held him up as a model.
But that the current leaders of the Legionaries should be left at the head of the congregation is entirely unlikely. The more probable decision is that the Holy See will appoint a fully empowered commissioner of its own, and will set the guidelines for a thorough reform, including the replacement of the current leaders.
But rebuilding from the ground up a congregation still deeply influenced by its disgraced founder will be an arduous enterprise.
Priests and seminarians who until very recently were steeped in the writings attributed to Maciel will have difficulty finding new sources of inspiration, not generic but specific to their order. The current leaders of the congregation aren't helping, either. On the contrary. One of Maciel's former personal secretaries, Fr. Felipe Castro, together with other priests of the Legion, has worked in recent months to select from among the founder's many letters a group of letters to be "saved" for the future, to keep a positive image of Maciel alive.
The dependence of the Legionaries on Maciel was – and for many still is – absolute. There wasn't a shred of daily life that escaped the rules he dictated. Absurdly exacting rules. Which prescribed, for example, how to sit at the table, how to use a napkin, how to swallow, how to eat chicken without using one's hands, how to debone a fish.
But this was nothing compared to the control exercised over consciences. The handbook for the examination of conscience at the end of the day was 332 pages long, with thousands of questions.
And then there were – and are – the statutes properly speaking. Much more extensive and detailed than those provided to the bishops of the dioceses in which the Legionaries have their houses. The five visitors went through a lot of trouble to obtain the statutes in their entirety.
From the statutes one gathers that in addition to the three classical vows of religious orders, of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the Legionaries were bound by two other vows – plus a third called "of fidelity and charity" for the select members of the congregation – which prohibited any kind of criticism and at the same time required telling the superiors about confreres seen violating the ban.
These extra vows were supposed to have been removed by order of the Holy See, in 2007. But the rank and file of the Legionaries do not seem to have been notified of this revocation.
The boundary between the spirit of obedience and the spirit of subjection is not always clear in the congregation founded by Maciel.
Among the Legionaries, the competition encouraged by the rules is to see who can make the most proselytes. And the novice immediately enters a collective machine that completely absorbs his individuality. Everything is meticulously overseen and regulated, in a thicket of limitations. From personal mail to reading material, from visits to travel.
Over the eight months of the apostolic visit, this control was relaxed only in part. Some priests told the visitors about the things they believed were wrong. Others have left the congregation and been incardinated into the diocesan clergy. Others have continued to defend Maciel's legacy. Others feel lost. Still others, finally, have faith in the rebuilding on new foundations of a religious congregation that is part of their lives and that they continue to love.