Secretive Right-Wing Catholic Order Founded by Accused Pedophile Under Fire
The sordid story of the Legion of Christ, whose late founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, was a close ally of Pope John Paul II before being forcibly retired by the Vatican in 2006, is a microcosm of the crisis currently enveloping the church. At stake is whether Pope Benedict XVI will decide to take over the Legion and install new leaders from the outside or allow it to continue with its same hierarchy. Five bishops from five countries are expected to submit their reports about the Legion Monday.
“Maciel was a sexual criminal of epic proportions who gained the trust of John Paul II and created a movement that is as close to a cult as anything we’ve seen in the church,” said author Jason Berry, one of two reporters who broke the Maciel story in 1997 and who directed a 2008 documentary about the priest called “Vows of Silence.”
“But he got away with it for years and still in a sense he’s getting away with it.”
The Vatican ordered a worldwide investigation into the Legion, founded in Mexico in 1941, last year. But its response to decades of allegations involving Maciel has been as slow and often reluctant as its reaction to the long-festering sex abuse scandals now erupting in Ireland, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands.
In 1997, nine former high-ranking seminarians accused Maciel, who died in 2008, of sexually abusing them when they were boys training for the priesthood. Last year, it was discovered Maciel had an illegitimate daughter born in 1986 in Spain. Two Mexican men who say they are Maciel’s sons claimhe also sexually abused them as children.
With a leader said to be a manipulative monster who built a shadowy but powerful organization for elite, wealthy Catholics with schools in 22 countries – and a tradition of grooming handsome, clean-cut priests who all wear their hair parted on the left and black double-breasted suits — the Legion of Christ sounds straight out of a Dan Brown novel. But while Opus Dei, the other controversial conservative Catholic order, was made famous in Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” the Legion of Christ is virtually unknown to most Americans – at least on the surface.
Two of the most visible priests in America are Father Thomas Williams, a movie-star-handsome CBS News analyst, and Father Jonathan Morris, who is sometimes referred to as “Father Knows Best” on the Fox News Channel. They belong to the Legion of Christ but rarely identify themselves as such on camera.
“Dan Brown got the wrong group,” said Genevieve Kineke, an orthodox Catholic who was a member of Regnum Christi, the legion’s lay movement, from 1992 to 2000 and writes a blog about her experiences. “The Legion of Christ is the scary cult embedded in the bosom of the mother church. Not Opus Dei.”
Though the Vatican knew of improprieties involving Maciel as far back as 1956, he was praised and protected by John Paul II, who became pope in 1978 and once called Maciel “an efficacious guide to youth.”
Even when the former seminarians went public in 1997 about Maciel’s sexual abuse and filed a formal complaint with the Vatican, the church at first did nothing while the Legion and other high-profile conservative Catholics called them liars.
A book, Vows of Silence, written by Hartford Courant reporter Gerald Renner and writer Jason Berry, was published in 2004 with what one reviewer called “horror stories… of brainwashing, manipulation, pederast seduction rituals, character assassination, bribes, drug abuse, gulag-type threats — you name it.”