The Pope's Good Call on Sexual Abuse

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By punishing a powerful conservative ally accused of decades of pedophilia, Pope Benedict XVI has proven that the Vatican's oft-stated commitment to crack down on abusive priests has real teeth. And that in turn, makes Catholic returnees to Mass look a little smarter.

A senior Vatican official has confirmed to TIME's Jeff Israely the news (reported earlier today by the National Catholic Reporter) that just before Easter the Vatican essentially forbade Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, 86, founder of the powerful Legionaires of Christ movement, all further public appearances, including the celebration of the Mass.

The move amounts to a major statement because the Legionairies, which Maciel founded in 1941, have been one of Catholicism's most vital and successful forces in the last few decades. Started in Mexico and now operating aggressively in 20 countries, the theologically and politically conservative group — which, including its lay branch, Regnum Christi, has some 53,000 members — bears some similarities to the Da Vinci Code punching bag, Opus Dei. Unlike Opus, which is almost wholly a lay organization, the Legionaries have been extremely successful at producing priests at a time when the Church faces a severe shortage. They enjoyed enthusiastic support from Pope John Paul II, and from backers of a more doctrinaire Church. Says Fr. James Martin, an editor at the (relatively liberal) Catholic publication America, "For years, people have been saying, 'If only the religious orders were more conservative, like the Legionairies — see how fast they’re growing.'" Maciel's followers, many of whom regard him as a living saint, hoped that after his death he might achieve canonization, as did Opus’s Josemaria Escriva.

But even as Maciel's institutional star was rising, un-saintly allegations about him were surfacing. In 1995 the Hartford Courant reported that nine of his former students had lodged intra-church complaints that he had molested them over three decades, in one case starting when the accuser was 12 years old. Maciel denied this, but several of his accusers stood fast, and Church-watchers kept a close eye on how the Vatican was treating the group and its leader. In 1997 Pope John Paul II appeared to ignore the scandal by appointing Maciel as as special delegate to an important synod. Some wondered whether the Mexican's past might have caught up to him when he stepped down as the Legionairies' head last year — but others suggested his age played a bigger role. And around the same time John Paul praised him for his "paternal affection and his experience." Benedict, then still Cardinal Ratzinger, closed an investigation into the Maciel allegations in 1999 — only to reopen it in 2004.

The new sanctions against him, which TIME's source said will be publicly announced within days "in light of the magnitude of the case," the Vatican confirmeed Friday morning in a one-page communiqué, settle the matter. They fall short of laicization, or removal of Maciel from the priesthood. But they still quallify as a triumph of papal principle over loyalty. Says Martin, "This is the collision between the Vatican’s complete love of conservative movements and its complete hatred of sexual abuse. And to give Benedict credit, he's stepped up to the plate." It will not shut down the Legionaires, he notes, "But it's a complete demoralization. It's like telling the Franciscans you can't talk about St. Francis or the Missionaries of Charity that Mother Teresa was a murderer. It means Maciel will never be canonized, there will never be statues to him, the pictures of him will come down. It's stunning."

It should also win Benedict some credibility with his American flock, which a recently published 2005 poll by Georgetown University indicates has already resumed Mass attendance at roughly pre-abuse-scandal levels, but maintains reservations about church leadership. In a now-famous homily shortly before his election, Benedict decried "filth" within his church, but doubts have lingered as to whether, even now, he truly "got" the abuse crisis, or whether the put-down was aimed at homosexual priests. The Maciel decision suggests that Benedict gets the crisis well enough to take down one of his predecessor's favorite sons.