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Vatican Launches Inquiry into Legionaries of Christ

Alex Constantine - July 21, 2009

(TY to John M. for the lead)

The Vatican has launched an investigation into the Legionaries of Christ, a religious order whose secretive founder stands accused of sexually abusing numerous children over decades.

While the Vatican has been rocked by numerous sex-abuse scandals in recent decades, through it all one religious order seemed immune to scrutiny: The Legionaries of Christ, also known as the Legion of Christ, a conservative group with some 800 priests, 2,500 seminarians, and a following of 70,000 across 21 countries, including the United States.

The Pope has convened an "apostolic visitation," or council of bishops, to investigate the group's nearly 70-year-long history, its controversial founder Maciel Degollado, and the accusations of sexual assault and financial mismanagement now swirling around the recently deceased religious leader.

And the investigation may have to grapple with an uncomfortable question: If the entire religious order was based on lies and deception, should it be disbanded?

In an article at GlobalPost, reporter Jason Berry states:

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."

Founded in 1941 by Maciel Degollado -- a Mexican national who at the time was so young he hadn't even been ordained as a priest -- the Legionaries of Christ developed a large following and unquestioning support from numerous popes over the years."

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. ... 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.

in the 1990s, as sex abuse scandals linked to the Catholic church came to light, victims of Degollado's sexual abuse began to come forward. Though the Vatican first recognized the claims in 1998, it wasn't until 2004 that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then Pope John Paul II's right-hand man, launched the first inquiry into Degollado's actions.

"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."

Last week, the UK's Independent ran a profile of the Legionaries of Christ, in which the paper described Degollado as a "narcissistic sociopath" whose religious schools "brainwashed" children into submission.

"Parents of youngsters recruited as Legionaries described it as a cult that targeted the young and naive in particular, some of them just 13, and then "brainwashed" them. But it is Maciel himself who has proved most controversial. Nuestro Padre was, according to one biographer, "a narcissistic sociopath" with a taste for flights on Concorde and five-star hotels. He is acknowledged by the Legion to have fathered at least one child – a 23-year-old daughter said to be called Norma Hilda and now living in Madrid. ...

"Much has been made of the power wielded by the secretive Opus Dei under John Paul II, not least by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code, but many Vatican-watchers believe that the Legion of Christ was bigger, richer (annual budget £435m), more influential, and even more sinister.

"In Maciel's case, it took 30 years – until 2006, after John Paul's death – for the new pope, Benedict XVI, finally to issue a public rebuke, and then it was simply an order that he should see out his days in private prayer rather than face a court. The long delay is evidence, some have suggested, that the Vatican still does not take the issue of paedophile priests sufficiently seriously."

As the investigation into the Legionaries of Christ gets underway, it appears for now that things are still business as usual for the religious order. Last week, the Southern Catholic College in Atlantaannounced it is partnering with the Legion of Christ, adding to the legion's already impressive roster of 176 schools across the world.

-- Daniel Tencer

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