- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 1, 2010

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican denounced the “immoral” double life led by the late founder of the Legionaries of Christ on Saturday and said a papal envoy and special commission would be named to overhaul the conservative order following revelations its founder sexually abused seminarians and fathered at least one child.

In a statement, the Vatican excoriated the Rev. Marciel Maciel for creating a “system of power” built on silence and obedience that enabled him to lead a double life “devoid of any scruples and authentic sense of religion” and allowed him to abuse young boys for decades unchecked.

“By pushing away and casting doubt upon all those who questioned his behavior, and the false belief that he wasn’t doing harm to the good of the Legion, he created around him a defense mechanism that made him unassailable for a long period, making it difficult to know his true life,” the Vatican said.

The Vatican assured the Legion’s current members that it would help them “purify” what good remains in the order and would not be left alone as they undergo the “profound revision” necessary to carry on.

The Vatican issued the statement after Pope Benedict XVI met with five bishops who investigated the Legion for the past eight months, met with over 1,000 members around the world to determine its future after its founder, around whom the Legion had built a cult of personality, was so thoroughly discredited.

The pope’s response is being closely watched because the Vatican is facing mounting pressure to aggressively confront abuse and provide pastoral care to victims. The Maciel case has long been seen as emblematic of Vatican inaction on abuse complaints, since Maciel’s victims had tried in the 1990s to bring a canonical trial against him but were shut down by his supporters at the Vatican.

In the end, it was only in 2006 — a year into Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy — that the Vatican ordered Maciel to lead a “reserved life of penance and prayer,” making him a priest in name only. He died in 2008 at age 87.

The Vatican statement was remarkable in its tough denunciation of Maciel’s crimes and deception. It said the system of power, obedience and silence he created had kept “a large part” of the Legionaries in the dark about his double life. That raised questions about what would become of the current Legionaries leadership since many have questioned how they couldn’t have known of his misdeeds.

The Vatican ordered an investigation into the order in 2009 after the Legionaries acknowledged that Maciel had fathered a daughter who is now in her 20s and lives in Spain. But it was only in March of this year that the Legionaries acknowledged that Maciel had also sexually abused seminarians and that two men are claiming to be his sons.

The late Pope John Paul II had long championed the Legionaries for their orthodoxy and ability to bring in vocations and money. Recent news reports in the U.S. Catholic publication National Catholic Reporter told of how the late pope’s secretary and No. 2 intervened to protect Maciel and accept donations on his behalf.

But the Vatican on Saturday was unsparing in its criticism of him, although it didn’t acknowledge the Vatican or its officials bore any blame in allowing his deception to continue.

“The extremely grave and objectively immoral behavior of P. Maciel, confirmed by incontrovertible testimony, represent at times real crimes and show a life devoid of any scruples and any authentic sense of religion,” it said.

The Vatican praised the missionary zeal of Legionaries priests and lay members, but said that same zeal blinded them to Maciel’s misdeeds and led them to believe that the sex abuse accusations “even as they became more insistent and widespread, could not be but slander.”

The Vatican set out an initial course of action: the pope would name a personal envoy and a commission of study to review the order’s founding constitutions. In addition, the Vatican said the pope would name a special investigator to look into the order’s lay arm, Regnum Christi, at the lay members’ request.

Maciel founded the Legion in his native Mexico in 1941 and the order’s culture was built around Maciel. His photo adorned every Legion building, his biography and writings were studied, and his birthday was celebrated as a feast day. Until recently, Legion members took a vow not to criticize their superiors, including Maciel.

The order now claims a membership of more than 800 priests and 2,500 seminarians in 22 countries, along with 70,000 members in Regnum Christi. It runs schools, charities, Catholic news outlets, seminaries for young boys, and universities in Mexico, Italy, Spain and elsewhere. Its U.S. headquarters are in Orange, Connecticut.

The revelations of Maciel’s double life caused enormous turmoil inside the Legionaries and Regnum Christie, with priests leaving the order and Legion officials steadily announcing changes meant to demonstrate the movement was already reforming on its own.

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