Fr. Marcial Maciel makes Theodore McCarrick look like Barney the Dinosaur in a red mozzetta. The founder of the Legion of Christ sexually assaulted dozens of boys and girls, men and women, who had placed themselves in his care. He had at least four mistresses, whom he kept in lavish apartments paid for by the Legion. He sired several illegitimate children; two of them also claim to have been abused by their father.
A couple of years after his death, the Vatican admitted that Maciel led a life “devoid of any scruples and authentic sense of religion.” It was the first time Rome formally acknowledged Maciel’s crimes—and yet the Holy See had been hearing the allegations for decades. Maciel enjoyed papal favor beginning in the reign of Pope Pius XII, though it probably wasn’t until late in John Paul II’s pontificate that Rome first caught a whiff of his debauchery. John Paul dismissed the charges, however, and went on showering Maciel with praise.
Benedict XVI, on the other hand, wasn’t convinced of his innocence. Immediately after succeeding John Paul, he launched a full investigation of the Legion’s activities, ordering its founder to withdraw from public life. Maciel retired to a gated community in Florida, where he lived with several of his disciples, one of his mistresses, and his daughter. He spent his final years lounging by his swimming pool and nursing a morphine addiction. He was never defrocked.
How did he get away with it? By now, we know the answer by rote. Maciel possessed those two crucial attributes of a successful predator-priest: personal charisma and a knack for fundraising. He traveled the world raising billions from faithful Catholics to build up his order, occasionally sending large “gifts” of cash to his friends in Rome. One Legionary priest told Newsweek that Maciel gave $1 million to then-Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz, a member of John Paul’s entourage who went on to become Archbishop of Kraków.
Maciel’s most valuable ally in the Vatican was certainly Angelo Cardinal Sodano, who served as both Vatican Secretary of State and Dean of the College of Cardinals. His Eminence tendered his resignation as head of the Sacred College late last year after it was proven that he had spent decades shielding the Legion from scrutiny. (Pope Francis promptly accepted, though the Vatican insists he stepped down due to his “advanced age.”)
Maciel was also backed by a small army of powerful laymen. When allegations of Maciel’s misconduct first became public, almost every Catholic “influencer” in the United States—from George Weigel to Mary Ann Glendon—circled his wagon. To my own regret, former Crisis editor Deal Hudson used our pages to attack a magazine that reported on the allegations, demanding the publisher “withdraw its false article and apologize to Father Maciel, the Legionaries of Christ, and faithful Roman Catholics.” And, in the March 2002 issue of First Things, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus praised Maciel as “a man who combines uncomplicated faith, gentle kindness, military self-discipline, and a relentless determination to do what he believes God has called him to do.” He just didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would rape children, you know?
Yet he was. The fact that this man who committed countless acts of great evil was never seriously punished by the Holy See remains a dark stain on the Church’s honor.
And this is only the tip of that horrible iceberg. Two months ago, the Legion concluded an internal investigation into the perfidies of its own rank and file. So far, they’ve identified 33 priests and 71 seminarians who preyed on children since the institute’s founding. We can be sure that this list isn’t exhaustive, and it doesn’t even mention the number of priests known to have had illicit relationships with adult men and women.
The Legion has only survived thus far thanks to Maciel’s genius for wooing wealthy laymen, but all that cash is now tied up in lawsuits. Four days ago, the Associated Press published an interview with a laywoman named Yolanda Martinez, whose son was allegedly preyed upon by a Legionary priest. The boy testified against his abuser; the Legion then offered the family 15,000 euros to recant the testimony. No doubt more such examples of bribery and obstruction of justice will surface before this whole sordid mess is cleaned up.
Clearly, the Legion needed a fresh start. And so, earlier this month, they elected Fr. John Connor as their new superior general. We wish him the best, but it seems a classic exercise in futility. When Father Connor was appointed as the Legion’s territorial director for North America back in 2014, he told the National Catholic Reporter that the institute’s new leaders were “men who are very capable of governing who weren’t associated with the founder.” He stressed that “non-association with the founder is a very important issue.”
An order is ashamed of its own patron: how pathetic is that? The Order of Friars Minor have St. Francis of Assisi, the Order of Preachers have St. Dominic of Osma, the Society of Jesus have St. Ignatius of Loyola—and the Legion of Christ have Fr. Marcial Maciel.
The allegations against Maciel broke in 1997, which means the Legionaries have been up to their eyeballs in scandal for 23 of their 80 years, or one-quarter of the institute’s existence. And there’s no sign that the scandal will abate anytime soon. One can’t help but wonder how much longer the Legion can go on.
But, then, why should they go on?
From the beginning, the Legion was criticized for lacking a charism: a special rule or mission. In order to establish a new religious society or institute, the would-be founder must prove to Church authorities that his work could not be done by any existing order. (This also helps the Vatican ensure that the petitioner is acting out of a sincere duty to Christ and His flock—that he isn’t just some megalomaniac looking to amass power and fame within his own cult of personality. Alas.)
When the Holy See finally launched a full investigation into the order, even they couldn’t figure out what set the Legion apart—besides its massive institutional corruption, of course. Rome placed the institute under the control of Velasio Cardinal De Paolis, who weakly assured the Vatican that “perhaps it already had a valid charism,” though he also reported that the Legionaries themselves prefer the phrase “institutional patrimony.” There’s no patrimony, however, without a pater, and the Legion has (rightly) disowned its own founding father.
Even if “patrimony” simply means a kind of shared way of life, that too seems dubious. Following in Maciel’s footsteps, the Legion has always promoted their members as power-players in the global Church. Some of these “media priests” are faithful to their vocation, like the blogger Fr. Matthew Schneider. But, in at least two notable cases, these men eventually felt called to quit the priesthood and pursue family life while continuing to work in the media.
Now, the reasons why someone might choose to leave the clerical state are their own. That’s between him, God, and the Holy Father. But surely it’s no surprise that handsome, articulate priests who spend so much time in front of television cameras might decide they prefer the freedom of an ordinary lay journalist. It takes a true saint, like the Ven. Fulton J. Sheen, to resist the temptations of celebrity; anyway, he was a televangelist, not a news commentator for the secular media. The life of a pastor and that of a pundit are mutually exclusive, and the Legion does nothing to support these men in their vocations by encouraging them to spend so much time “in the world.”
The point is this: even if all the abusers could be ousted and all the corruption purged, there’s still a yawning spiritual void at the Legion’s center. It was founded by a man who used his position to satiate his own lust for sex, drugs, power, and money. Whatever good work the Legion may have done was, in the end, merely a smokescreen for its founder’s wickedness; whatever good work it may do could easily be carried on by other institutions within the Church—Opus Dei, or the Thomistic Institute, or literally anyone but the Legionaries.
While the decision is ultimately in Pope Francis’s hands, I would humbly suggest that the Legion of Christ be suppressed at once. It shouldn’t have been established in the first place, and the Vatican had more than enough reason to disband it twenty years ago. Its many good priests deserve nothing but the prayers and gratitude of faithful Catholics, but the Legion’s continued existence as a religious institute is a disgrace. It shames the Church; it serves no purpose but to remind the world of the heinous crimes committed by Fr. Marciel Maciel and his allies, and of Rome’s failure to rein them in. There may be no justice in this life, but—for the love of God—let’s at least have some closure.