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Still, victims are keeping their expectations low: the ultrasecretive order that Maciel built, like some shadowy fraternity from a Dan Brown novel, may be simply too powerful to cudgel. Established in 22 countries, it operates nine universities, 125 religious houses and more than 160 schools. In the U.S. alone it runs 21 élite Catholic prep schools, a university in Sacramento, Calif., and some of the only seminaries for teenage boys in the U.S. at a time when the American priesthood's ranks are thinning exponentially. In Mexico, the children of telecom billionaire Carlos Slim, one of the world's richest people, have attended its academies. In fact, like its rival conservative organization Opus Dei, the Legion counts some of the world's wealthiest Catholics among its followers its lay membership, known as the Regnum Christi, or Kingdom of Christ, numbers some 70,000 worldwide and it is one of the Church's top fundraisers.
Just as important, however, is the thorny issue of John Paul II, who died in 2005 and was succeeded by Benedict. The Vatican had investigated Maciel's personal life as early as the 1950s, but John Paul II, whose papacy began in 1978, showered praise on the Legion's founder, calling him "an efficacious guide to youth."
Vaca says that remark is what compelled Maciel victims to tell their stories for the book Vows of Silence, published in 2004. They eventually got the Vatican, even under John Paul II, to take their allegations seriously, but Church watchers say Benedict's current mission to canonize his predecessor is another reason Rome won't want to punish the Legion too harshly. "The Legionaries of Christ are going to withstand this [latest] blow," says Elio Masferrer, an expert on the Catholic Church in Latin America at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Rome, he predicts, "will not take any meaningful action" just as it hasn't, he argues, in widespread clerical-sex-abuse cases in Ireland and the U.S., despite Benedict's vow to remove the "filth" of sex abusers from the priesthood.
Analysts like Masferrer do believe, however, that the Maciel scandal, especially in the wake of last week's revelations, is having a "devastating impact" on the Catholic Church in Mexico. The Church is already hemorrhaging congregants to Protestant Evangelical sects, and it has seen its clout diminish in areas like the capital, Mexico City, where secular leftists recently passed a law permitting gay marriage. "The politicians can say that the Church officials are in no position to give moral lectures," says Masferrer.
While the Legion website's message last week was sympathetic to Lara and her sons, the order made a point of exposing José Raúl González's private demand earlier this year that the Legion pay him $26 million to keep quiet about his father's sexual abuse. The order insists it did not pay, suggesting that the money was the motive for the tell-all radio interview. Masferrer says the Legion has also circulated reports that Maciel was surrounded by exorcists in his final days, suggesting that his immoral acts were the work of demons and not the priest. That's a Hail Mary ploy at best. And it does little to obscure the fact that it's up to Benedict to decide whether Padre Maciel's Legion is itself possessed of enough demons to warrant more severe penance.
With reporting by Ioan Grillo and Dolly Mascareñas / Mexico City