Vatican investigates Legionaries of Christ

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Editor's note: A sweeping Vatican investigation of an international religious order — and the cult of personality built around its founder — has just begun in Rome. Five bishops are delving into the finances and internal dynamics of an organization suspected of influence peddling. Award-winning investigative reporter and author Jason Berry has tracked these events for years in a book he co-authored and a documentary he produced on events leading to the Pope's decision to investigate. In this exclusive report for GlobalPost, Berry breaks new ground on the Vatican investigation of the Legionaries of Christ, and the case against Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder.

ROME — Pope Benedict XVI recently appointed five bishops from as many countries to investigate the Legionaries of Christ, a religious order founded in 1941 by the late Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, a Mexican priest who is accused of sexually abusing young seminarians, and who left a grown daughter who was born out-of-wedlock.

Even after death, Maciel wields power through the influence he secured.

While the American Catholic Church has been publicly battered by two decades of priest sexual abuse scandals that erupted in the press and devastated church finances with hundreds of millions of dollars spent on compensating victims and legal fees, the Maciel scandal has gone largely unnoticed by most of the American press.

[New questions about Legionaries of Christ]

There’s a reason: For decades, the Legion shunned the media while Maciel cultivated relationships with some of the most powerful, conservative Catholics in the world. He also forced his priests and seminarians to take vows never to criticize him, or any superior. The legion built a network of prep schools and an astonishing database of donors. In Maciel's militant spirituality, Legionaries — and their wing of lay supporters, Regnum Christi — see themselves as saving the church from a corrupted world. Behind the silence he imposed, Maciel was corrupt — abusing seminarians and using money in ways that several past and present seminarians liken to bribery, in forging ties with church officials.

The silence Maciel imposed on his followers allowed Maciel to pursue a double life.

Maciel, who was born into a wealthy ranching family in Mexico, wooed cardinals and bishops with money, fine wines, $1,000 hams and even a new car — and in so doing secured support for his religious order inside the Roman Curia.

Now, as the investigating bishops, called “visitators” — from America, Italy, Mexico, Spain and Chile — begin travels for interviews in the order’s far-flung religious houses, two Vatican officials are in the Legion’s corner.

Read about how Pope Benedict XVI is dealing with the sex scandals. 

Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals and the former Secretary of State, and Franc Rode, the cardinal who oversees religious congregations, were both longtime allies of Maciel and strong supporters of the order today.

The issue facing Benedict has no precedent in modern church history: whether to dismantle a movement with a $650 million budget yet only about 700 priests and 2,500 seminarians, or to keep the brand name and try to reform an organization still run as a cult of personality to its founder. Excessive materialism and psychological coercion tactics continue Maciel’s legacy.

Two years ago Benedict abolished the “secret vows” by which each Legionary swore never to criticize Maciel or any superior, and to report any criticism to the leadership. The vows helped facilitate Maciel’s secret life of sexual plunder.

In 2006 Benedict ordered Maciel to “a life of prayer and penitence” after an investigation of pedophilia charges that shadowed him for years. Ex-Legionaries from Mexico and Spain filed the allegations in 1998 in the tribunal of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was elected pope in 2005.

Maciel, who died last year at 87, was the greatest fundraiser of the modern church. He courted rich supporters in building dozens of elite prep schools and several seminaries and universities, backed by a 60,000-member lay group called Regnum Christi (Kingdom of Christ). The Legion and RC distribute promotional videos in which Pope John Paul II appears with Maciel, celebrating the movement’s resurgent orthodoxy.

The Legion’s biggest benefactor is Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire who is by some accounts the world’s richest man. Slim recently lent The New York Times $240 million in its financial struggle. The Oriol family, among the wealthiest in Spain, aided Maciel early and often.

Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon, the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican under the last President Bush, scoffed at the abuse allegations Maciel faced before his punishment. So did William Donahue of the Catholic League.

Bill Bennett, the conservative Reagan-era official and CNN contributor, has been a featured speaker at Legion fundraisers. Jeb Bush spoke at a 2007 gathering in Atlanta.

The Legion typically pays its speaker and draws support from commercial sponsors, explained insiders in Rome.

Benedict ordered the new investigation after Legion superiors, hand-picked by Maciel, disclosed to followers in February that he had a daughter. In the Spanish press and on websites she has been identified as 23 and living with her mother in Madrid. The question of financial support for his daughter and her mother and how long Legion officials have known about it is a question of the inquiry.

Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, not one of the visitators, banned the Legion and Regnum Christi from his archdiocese, all but calling them a cult.

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput is the American visitator in the case. Earlier this summer  Chaput and four other bishops were given a dossier of findings on Maciel at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Ratzinger as cardinal directed for years.

Starting in 2004, at least 30 witnesses testified to Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the C.D.F. investigator, that Maciel abused them as youths. But the 2006 Vatican order punishing Maciel failed to specify what exactly he had done, nor did it acknowledge the victims.

Legion leaders used the vague wording in a bizarre spin control on its website, pledging support to Benedict while casting Maciel as wrongly accused, a future saint.

Sodano, then secretary of state, softened the language of the order, easing the blow against Maciel and effectively encouraging the Legion's damage control campaign, according to two priests here close to the case, speaking on background.

"When the Holy See asks a person to live a life of 'prayer and penitence,' it presupposes that an investigation has been concluded and that person has been found guilty," explained a Vatican canon lawyer. "The Maciel case was about a lifetime not compatible with his vocation. It's wrong to say Maciel was not condemned."

The Legion website, however, suggests no such guilt.

Marcial Maciel befriended Angelo Sodano in Chile in the 1980s when the latter, an Italian archbishop, was the Vatican ambassador. As Maciel and Sodano became close, the Legion cemented ties with the Pinochet regime in building a prep school, college and radio station.

Back in Rome, in the 1990s, as cardinal-secretary of state, Sodano, according to several former Legionaries, helped Maciel gain zoning variances in Rome to build Regina Apostolarum, a Legion university campus here.

“Sodano was instrumental,” said Glenn Favreau, now an attorney in Washington, D.C. According to others, Sodano’s nephew, an architect, worked on the building project. Sodano appears with Maciel in a promotional video for the university.

When Maciel died last year, the Legion's website, with no whiff of irony, said he went to heaven. But he was buried in his remote hometown, Cotija, Mexico, far from the tomb in Our Lady of Guadalupe Basilica in Rome, which he built during his rise to power.

Maciel stepped down from the Legion leadership in 2004 after Ratzinger ordered the investigation. He picked the director general, Father Alvaro Corcuero, and his assistants, Fathers Luis Garza and Evarista Sada. All come from well-to-do Mexican familes.

For the bishop-visitators, questions loom. Is the Legion subsidizing Maciel’s daughter and her mother? If so, how long did the priests know about Maciel’s shadow life? When did they tell the pope and Vatican officials?

Larger issues of integrity have emerged. The Legion uses sophisticated web and mass mail appeals for mission work and seminary expenses.

“When donors learn how money is actually spent, they will think again,” said Jose Barba, a Mexico City college professor who filed the 1998 Vatican case against Maciel.

Barba said that the bishop-visitators should investigate Legion finances. “Fifty people in the States wanted to give testimony to Scicluna on [the legion's] financial abuses, but couldn’t get to Rome.”

The lay affiliate, Regnum Christi, raises funds and helps run Legion prep schools — some 21 in America alone. Maciel’s letters are a staple of RC prayer circles.

“The atmosphere in House of Studies is bizarre,” a Legion priest said glumly, sitting on a bench near the Tiber River, fearful of repurcussions should his name be used. “Even now, the brothers [seminarians] have not been told about Maciel’s pedophilia. Their mail is screened and web access restricted.”

He considers the 320 seminarians “brainwashed. They read the letters of Nuestro Padre” — Our Father, as Maciel, touted internally as a future saint, was called. “Three years after the Holy Father punished him, they study his writings. Priests can spend time freely outside. The brothers are in a concentration camp.”

Fr. Thomas Berg, who recently left the Legion for the New York archdiocese, in an interview with L’espresso called on the order to completely disavow Maciel. He worried that other Maciel abuse victims would emerge.

In February, when the superiors revealed that Maciel had a daughter, the Legionary priest in Rome said: “We were told Maciel had multiple personalities, but that despite the founder’s flaws, the Legion is God’s instrument for good.”

Money was an instrument by which the Legion secured Vatican support.

Maciel spent lavishly to woo cardinals and bishops, even after a 1997 Hartford Courant investigation exposed his sexual abuse of early seminarians.

Another Legionary, over coffee, fumed: “So much money at Christmas goes to the wine, the whiskey, and the special hams for the gift baskets. Legionary brothers are sent in cars to deliver them to cardinals and other allies, always for a purpose. To gain power for the Legion and Maciel ... . A small gift, I understand; but a large gift is a bribe.”

He said that Maciel had subsidized the publication of a book for a Latin American cardinal, and presented a new car to the late Cardinal Pio Laghi, former Vatican ambassador to the U.S., who spent his final years as Vatican prefect of the Congregaton for Education. This was when Maciel was building the university. Laghi rebuffed the offer. The car went to another cardinal, who has since died, according to the priest.

Religious centers typically send gifts to church officials in Rome at Christmas, said Father Giovanni Adena, an inactive priest and editor of Adista, an independent religious news service in Rome.

Adena considers the Legion extreme in gift-giving, but he said it has been encouraged by Cardinal Franc Rode, the Vatican prefect in charge of religious orders. “When Rode’s congregation asks groups for gifts, those who want the support will send money and presents. Rode loves this kind of stuff,” said Adena.

Rode has spoken glowingly of the Legion in speeches and sermons since Maciel’s dismissal. In 2007, according to a Legion insider, the cardinal was a guest at a Legion conference in Atlanta on family values, where Jeb Bush was keynote speaker. He said Rode went on to a Legion-paid vacation in Cancun.

Rode’s office said the cardinal was not in Rome, and unavailable for comment.

Christmas gifts were divided into category by declining levels of importance, the Legionary continued. For weeks, “eight or 10 brothers prepared the baskets in the basement. Fine Spanish hams cost quite a lot — 30 euros per kilo. You can spend $1,000 for a large one,” said one of the Legion priests who spoke on condition that his name not be used.

Another priest here who left the Legion years ago recounted how Maciel in 1946 arrived in war-ravaged Rome and presented Cardinal Clemente Micara, then the vicar of Rome, with $10,000 cash.

“That was an enormous amount in those days,” the former Legion preist said.

Micara would return the favor at a pivotal moment in Maciel’s life.

In 1956 the Legionary founder was suspended by Pope Pius XII while hospitalized for morphine painkiller addiction, amidst abuse allegations in the seminary.

Barba and others have stated that as boys he abused they lied to protect Maciel in questioning by Vatican officials. “We obeyed our vows to the Legion,” he said. “You must realize, it was the only world we knew.”

When Pius died in 1959, Micara had Maciel reinstated, though whether the cardinal had the formal power to abort a papal investigation is in doubt. Micara would preside at the opening of the Guadalupe Basilica Maciel built in Rome.

Letters accusing Maciel that several men sent to the Vatican in the 1970s and 1980s were ignored.

Pope John Paul II was impressed with the sight of dozens of Legionaries in formation, and the large number of men ordained in the 1990s. John Paul’s presence in Legion videos was pivotal to its marketing efforts.

The 1998 charges Barba filed in Ratzinger’s tribunal sat dormant for six years, a sign of Sodano’s power over the process, he says. In late 2004, with John Paul’s health failing, Ratzinger — perhaps sensing he would one day become pope — ordered Scicluna the canon lawyer to begin his investigation. When the report was done, Ratzinger had become pope.

Adena, the news editor and inactive priest, faults John Paul for failing to investigate Maciel. “Hard questions must be asked as the Vatican considers him for sainthood.”

Adena considers Benedict’s 2006 order removing Maciel from active ministry “a mistake. He should be have been excommunicated. But he was protected because of the money he was bringing into the church.”

Last week in Atlanta, a small liberal arts school, Southern Catholic College announced that it merged with the Legion “to attract students from across North America,” the SCC president Jeremiah J. Ashcroft stated. "This expanded reach and support greatly enhances our ability to achieve our mission to prepare moral and ethical leaders who will enlighten society and glorify God."

Jason Berry is coauthor of “Vows of Silence” a book on the Maciel case. He is producer of a film based on the book, which recently screened as part of RomaFictionFest. He is working on a book about church financial conflicts.

More on the Catholic Church:

Pope gives a nod to Obama

She who taught the pope of love and sex

The angels want to wear my red shoes

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the age of Maciel when he died.

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