Mexico hit hard by Vatican's repudiation of Legion's founder

The elite Anahuac University is one of many academic institutions operated by the scandal-plagued Legion of Christ in Mexico.
The elite Anahuac University is one of many academic institutions operated by the scandal-plagued Legion of Christ in Mexico. Tim Johnson / MCT

MEXICO CITY — Public scorn has fallen on the late Mexican priest Marcial Maciel — a serial pedophile accused of secretly fathering several children — and the shame within his powerful worldwide congregation, the Legion of Christ, is particularly intense in his homeland.

After all, Mexico's biggest tycoons were avid supporters of Maciel, sending their sons and daughters to elite Legion of Christ schools and universities.

A former president once asked Maciel to perform the first communion for his daughter, and the wife of another president praised him for interceding with the pope on her behalf.

Yet since Maciel's death in 2008, Mexicans have witnessed a quickening spectacle surrounding the late priest, whose order grew to become one of the most powerful in the Roman Catholic Church. It operates hundreds of schools and universities in more than 20 countries, and has assets that are thought to top $20 billion.

Allegations that Maciel had fathered children with at least two young women, whom he courted while masquerading as an oil broker, added to previous charges that he'd serially abused teenaged seminarians under his control. On May 1, the Vatican rendered a verdict, ending decades of refusal to punish Maciel, who'd risen to become a trusted adviser to former Pope John Paul II.

It said that Maciel's "objectively immoral behavior" in some cases "constituted real crimes." His life was "devoid of scruples and authentic religious sentiment."

The Vatican statement said Maciel skillfully created alibis and enforced a code of silence among his devoted followers. Few among the 800 priests, 5,000 seminarians and 85,000 lay members of his Regnum Christi movement in 40 countries seemed to know of his personal behavior.

For the time being, the Legion of Christ is hunkered down, waiting for Pope Benedict XVI to name a Vatican delegate in coming weeks to oversee a process of "purification" of the congregation, praying that the overhaul won't spell doom for the order.

Benedict declared Tuesday on the way to a four-day trip to Portugal that the worldwide scandals arising from sexual abuse by Catholic clergy were the result of "sins inside the church." Benedict has been the subject of scrutiny himself for how he handled abuse cases in Germany and at the Vatican, but in placing blame on the church — and in pressing ahead on the legion case — he has played the role of reformer.

At the academies linked to the Legion of Christ in Mexico, where photos of Maciel once graced the walls and he was venerated as "our father," rectors and principles declined to speak with the news media.

"They are embarrassed. He was their leader," said Grisha Suquet, a pre-med student at Anahuac University, an exclusive school in the hills of western Mexico City that the legion founded and that's considered one of the nation's best.

"I feel deceived," said Daniel Marvan, another student. "He didn't lead just two lives. He led, like, five lives."

Outside experts said they thought that the Legion of Christ would endure the scandal.

"They've got a really serious problem," said Fernando Gonzalez, a psychoanalyst and the author of a book about the congregation, "but they have so much money and so much power that they are going to survive."

Maciel, who was born in 1920 in Michoacan state, had four uncles who were Catholic bishops, and founded his own movement by the age of 21. Within a few years, charges of sexual abuse swirled, but Maciel made followers vow never to speak ill of the legion or their superiors — him — and to inform on anyone who did.

He endeared himself to the wealthy. By the early 1950s, the widow of a tycoon from Monterrey had given his order tens of millions of dollars. He later befriended a series of magnates, including the Azcarraga clan of the Televisa empire and telecom tycoon Carlos Slim, whom Forbes lists as the world's richest man. He offered to arrange private audiences for them with the pope.

"He instilled in their minds the idea of an easy Christianity," said Jose Barba-Martin, a historian and one of many former seminarians who accused Maciel of abuse.

The stakes now are higher than just the fate of the legion. Also in play is the legacy — and potential beatification — of the late John Paul II, the Polish-born pontiff who took on Maciel as a trusted adviser.

Maciel funneled money to John Paul's favorite interests in Poland as the country struggled to emerge from communist rule, Barba-Martin said. Whether John Paul II blocked the defrocking of Maciel despite a voluminous case record of sexual abuse charges is yet to be judged.

Before some 20,000 people gathered in 2001 for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Legion of Christ, John Paul II hailed the Mexican priest: "With special affection, I greet your beloved founder, Father Marcial Maciel, and extend to him my heartfelt congratulations."

After Benedict XVI became pope, he took action on the sex abuse claims, removing Maciel from priestly duties in 2006 and consigning him to a life of "prayer and penance."

Among the former seminarians who went public is Juan Jose Vaca, who said Maciel abused him for nearly three years starting when he was age 12 1/2.

"Everyone who has been sexually abused needs a lot of long-term therapy. They cannot heal by themselves. They need help, as I did myself," Vaca said in a telephone interview from outside New York, where he now lives.

Vaca, who later became a priest and headed the legion's U.S. operations in Connecticut from 1971 to 1976, said he still burned over the torment by Maciel.

"He violated all codes of decency in our society. He was a disgrace to humankind," Vaca said, adding that he sent two letters with details of Maciel's abuse to John Paul II, "and I know they were delivered at the Vatican."

While the Legion of Christ has asked for forgiveness from former seminarians who allege abuse, it hasn't provided restitution.

A Mexican former priest who helped defend the victims, Alberto Athie, said he wouldn't mourn the eventual demise of the Legion of Christ.

"Personally, I don't see any theological basis for the legion now. What I would do is not try to save the institution but try to save all those priests, nuns and laypeople who believed in a fraud," he said.

Among the most dramatic moments came in early March, when two brothers who claimed to be Maciel's sons from a relationship he had with a Tijuana woman went on a Mexican radio program, raising allegations of incestuous abuse. One of the brothers, Omar Gonzalez, broke down on the air recounting how Maciel had abused him as a youngster during a trip to Madrid.

The other brother, Raul, said Maciel discouraged him when he said he wanted psychological treatment, eventually sending him to a friend who diagnosed him with "delusions" and kept him under heavy sedation for a year and a half.


Legionaries of Christ

Vatican Communique on Legionaries of Christ


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