Maciel Scandal Puts Focus on a Secretive Church Order

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AFP / Getty

Mexican Catholic Father Marcial Maciel in 2005

Disgrace already hung over the Rev. Marcial Maciel when he died in 2008 at the age of 87. In 2005, beset by burgeoning charges that he had sexually abused young seminarians for decades, the Mexican priest had resigned as head of the Legionaries of Christ, one of the Roman Catholic Church's most powerful clerical orders. In 2006 the Vatican — which under the late Pope John Paul II had been one of Padre Maciel's staunchest allies — made him give up public ministry and confine himself to a life of "prayer and penitence."

But last week in Mexico, where Maciel founded the ultraconservative Legion in 1941, the scandal took an even unholier turn. On March 3, one of Maciel's mistresses, Blanca Lara, and two of Lara's grown sons told MVS Radio that Maciel had sexually abused his own children. It "started when I was 7 years old," said one son, José Raúl González, now in his early 30s. "I was lying down with him like any boy, any son with his father. He pulled down my pants and tried to rape me." The abuse, González said, got worse after that and lasted years. His brother Omar said he too had been sexually abused by Maciel, starting at age 8. (The sons never took Maciel's surname.) Says Maciel victim Juan Vaca, 72, a former priest and adjunct psychology and sociology professor at Mercy College in New York: "This simply confirms what sort of personality we [were] dealing with: a malignant narcissist."

It wasn't so long ago that an army of conservative Catholics, including such prominent voices as the late theologian the Rev. Richard Neuhaus, would have rushed to defend Maciel, the highest-profile Catholic clergyman ever to be accused of sexual abuse. But at this point, even the Legion has resigned itself to the dark double life of the man its members often called "Nuestro Padre," or Our Father. Last year, the order conceded that Maciel had sired children. And it didn't challenge last week's allegations, posting a message on its website, "We share the suffering and shame of [Lara's] family, understanding the difficult circumstances they've lived and are living." Maciel, says Jim Fair, a Legion spokesman in Chicago, was "a guy who lived in two different universes. We're trying to sort out how to deal with this."

The question, though, is whether Pope Benedict XVI is poised to deal with it for them — perhaps by taking over the Legion and installing new leadership from outside the order. A number of U.S. bishops already bar the Legion from operating in their dioceses. This month Benedict is expected to receive the first report of a five-bishop team he sent out last year to investigate the Legion around the world. Sources familiar with the probe say it's meant in part to determine if others in the order have committed sexual abuse and whether the order's current leadership was aware of Maciel's behavior and covered it up via payoffs to mistresses and abuse victims. Fair said the Legion had no comment in that regard. But Maciel victims like Vaca say that Legion bosses such as its general director, the Rev. Alvaro Corcuera, and Maciel's private secretary, the Rev. John Devlin, should step forward with what they know.

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