The Maciel Problem
Legion, A Problem For The Vatican
A Question Of Moral Relativism
By JASON BERRY
September 27, 2009
In a sermon opening the 2005 conclave that would elect him pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger gave a cri de coeur on Christian values: "We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive."
As Pope Benedict XVI, his papacy is a study in tension between moral absolutes and pastoral flexibility.
As absolutist, Benedict in a 2006 speech quoted a 14th-century source, scorning the Prophet Muhammad, provoking an uproar in the Muslim world. The Vatican issued a statement of regret.
As forgiving pastor, Benedict tried to draw the breakaway Pius X Society back into the fold, only to be embarrassed when a bishop in the sect denied that the Holocaust happened. More embarrassment, another papal apology..
Today, the pope faces a greater challenge to his authority. The Vatican is investigating an international religious order with its U.S. headquarters in Orange and its main seminary in Cheshire. How should the pope handle the Legionaries of Christ?
In 2006, he banished the founder, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, 86, to "a life of prayer and penitence" after an investigation of pedophilia charges The Courant first reported in 1997.
Despite testimony by 30 ex-Legionaries abused by Maciel, the Vatican failed to specify his moral crimes. To mollify his followers, the Vatican praised the order, ignoring its website that had attacked the victims. The legion then cast Maciel as falsely accused, all but scoffing at the pope.
Maciel, who died last year, was the greatest fundraiser of the modern church. The Legion's donor base includes Carlos Slim of Mexico, among the world's richest men. He lent The New York Times $250 million to keep it afloat. The Legion, with a $650 million budget yet only 700 priests, operates seminaries, colleges and schools in several countries.
Maciel impressed his priests and seminarians with lavish gifts to favored Vatican officials. Several insiders I've interviewed express regret about checks as high as $10,000 to certain cardinals, Christmas gifts of expensive wines and $1,000 Spanish hams, even a car to one cardinal. They wonder if all that was bribery.
Moreover, as two Legion priests told me in Rome this summer, seminarians — with mail screened and Web access restricted — are kept in the dark about Maciel's pedophilia history. Three years after Benedict punished Maciel, seminarians still study his writings.
John Paul II, who championed the Legion despite the allegations against Maciel, appeared in a Legion marketing video (which it no longer uses) telling a group: "You are all sons and daughters of Father Maciel!"
The irony drips like candle wax. In February, Legion officials revealed that Maciel had an out-of-wedlock daughter. In August, news reports from Madrid and Mexico City said that Maciel fathered six children by two women.
Mexico City attorney Jose Bonilla represents three of the adult children, claiming ample evidence of their paternity, demanding compensation from the Legionaries. The religious order has not refuted him..
Bonilla also asserted that Legion officials knew about Maciel's children in the 1990s. Meaning, the leadership deceived donors and two popes for at least a decade.
Fraud is at issue in a Rhode Island lawsuit that seeks to undo the will of Gabrielle Mee, a widow who lived in a house run by Regnum Christi, the Legion's lay affiliate. Regnum Christi members raise money and study Maciel's letters. In challenging Mrs.. Mee's will, which gives her $15 million estate to the Legion, a niece argues that had Mrs. Mee known the truth about Maciel, she never would have donated. Court documents allege that the Legion used her largesse to buy a corporate center in Westchester County. Residents there oppose the order's plans for a college campus.
The parents of Glenn Favreau, an ex-Legionary from Champlain, N.Y., have written the Legion, seeking the return of $13,000 they gave over 10 years.
Benedict sent five bishops from as many countries to investigate the Legion. They should hire forensic accountants to probe its finances. Anything less would continue the deception. The Vatican should order the Legion to pay settlements to Maciel's victims and his children.
And, then, His Holiness should shut down this sick operation forever. Legion priests and seminarians with a genuine vocation can find places elsewhere in the church. Preserving the Legion as a Catholic name brand name would be moral relativism at its worst, and a black stain on this papacy.
•Jason Berry, co-author with the late Gerald Renner, then a Courant reporter, of "Vows of Silence," a book about Marcial Maciel Degollado, has produced a film documentary of the same title that follows the Vatican investigation.
Copyright © 2009, The Hartford Courant