12Mar New pope must address scandal of Legionaries founder

When Pope Benedict spoke of the face of the Catholic Church being “disfigured”, and when he used the word “filth” about aspects of church life, maybe he was partly referring to the Vatican itself. The next pope will have a major task ahead of him, not just with the universal church, but with reforming the Roman curia.
The Vatileaks gave us insight into a dysfunctional system. We got a glimpse of a structure that was riddled with power struggles, infighting and jealousies. Even if only part of what was revealed is true, it still amounts to a major clean-up task for the new pope.
My concern is an older scandal, which continues to reveal new and more astonishing features. I am referring to the story of the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Marcial Maciel Degollado. For those who don’t know, this man founded a large and conservative religious order, and also a lay institute, Regnum Christi. He was a great friend of John Paul II, and of one of the most powerful people in the Vatican, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.
He died in 2008, and it is now clear that not only had he fathered children by two different women but, much more disturbing, he had a record of sexual abuse, including seminarians and even some of his own children. He was also possibly the greatest fundraiser the church has known. His order, the Legionaries, is immensely wealthy, and he poured enormous amounts of money into the Vatican, including reputedly funding most of John Paul’s foreign journeys.
Many questions need to be answered regarding this man and his relation to the Vatican establishment. How could he continue to be welcomed and honoured by the pope and the curia long after it became clear that there was at the very least serious concern about him? Facing up to these questions will have to be part of making a fresh start.
‘Perfect example’
What did Pope John Paul know, and when did he know it? In 2004 he ordained 60 Legionaries in the Vatican, and he spoke of Maciel as the perfect example of priesthood to be followed by these young priests. This was years after a Vatican investigation had taken place, and when knowledge of Maciel’s activities was being widely published. If John Paul did know that there was, at least, great suspicion about this man, why did he present him as a model? Or was it that he, old and frail, was ignorant of the facts? If so, who was responsible for not warning him, to prevent him from making such a terrible mistake? Or is it possible that the pope did know, but chose to ignore the facts?

There must be people in the Vatican who know the answers to these questions. John Paul has already been declared “blessed”, and there is a possibility that he may be canonised.
When the truth eventually emerges, and if it is the case that John Paul was actually covering up for Maciel, and that comes out after canonisation, it will do enormous damage to the church.
Equally, if the pope was ignorant of something that by then was widely known both in the Vatican and around the world, what does that say about the real authority of popes, and the way they are treated by the curia?
Life of penitence
Joseph Ratzinger, when he became pope, quickly removed Maciel from ministry, and ordered him to a life of penitence. (A recent court case has revealed that, far from penitence, he lived out his life in a luxury complex in Florida.) For how long before he became pope did Joseph Ratzinger know of the activities of Maciel but failed to act out of respect for the ailing pope – or for some other reason?

Who else in the Vatican knew of the lifestyle and sexual abuse of Maciel, and when did they know it? What, if anything, did they do to stop it?
The methods Maciel used to get money out of people, especially old widows and wives of wealthy men, were also questionable. A lawsuit is taking place in Rhode Island where a woman is trying to recover $30 million Maciel got from her aunt.
It is widely believed that he gave large sums of money to individuals within the Vatican. His favoured method of doing this, apparently, was to hand over suitcases full of cash.To his credit, Joseph Ratzinger refused to take money from Maciel.
Who in the Vatican took money, how much, and what did they do with it? And what of Cardinal Sodano, the acknowledged defender of Maciel? How is it that he is still in a senior position in the Roman curia?
Many questions
These are just some of the many questions and challenges facing the new pope in the Vatican itself. Maybe there is an acceptable explanation which, given its obsession with secrecy the Vatican won’t allow out, and which might give a different flavour to it all.
However, if things are as they seem, then all the people involved in the cover-up, in receiving the money raised by Maciel, in not passing on the information, should be removed from their positions, and should no longer have any role in the government of the church at any level.
I am not confident this will happen. Too many of the old men who will gather tomorrow to elect the new pope know, metaphorically speaking, where the bodies are buried. Even if a new pope wants to clean the place out, will he have the power to do it? But still, there is the Holy Spirit.

Fr Tony Flannery is a Redemptorist priest and member of the leadership team of the Association of Catholic Priests

8 Responses

  1. Padair

    One of the poster PR boys followed his ‘father’s’ example too well.

    Fr Thomas Williams fathered a child too. Nothing wrong with that but it doesn’t seem like he was going to come clean and do the right thing by the woman and child.

    I am sure if the Holy Spirit were truly influential, He/She’d completely breeze past the Vatican and choose a complete unknown.

    Difficult to know how to reconcile faith with such chronic corruption.

  2. Association of Catholic Priests

    The Holy Spirit will be our support, I pray to God. Questions I’d like to see answered include:
    Why did JPII protect Archbishop Marcinkus when the Italian Government wanted him for serious questioning about financial scandals in the Vatican Bank? He was not the feeble figure he later became later in his pontificate in those days. Why Oh Why did JPI have to die? (Or was he helped?) We would have had a very different Church now if he had been able to fulfil his promise.
    Also why was JPII beatified with almost indecent haste? To canonise his ideas rather than for his holiness, I strongly suspect. Congratulations to the “Conservative” element, who from being a minority before “Humane Vitae”, to have achieved total domination of the Church’s government today. But another John XXIII might emerge from the conclave and surprise us all. Over to you, Holy Spirit!

    Paul Burns

  3. Máire

    Another question I would like to add to Paul’s list is: Why was Maciel able to continue for so long when his astonishing behaviour was well known in the Vatican? Perhaps as a friend of JP11 it would not be good for the Church (the laity) to learn the terribleand scandalous truth, which could damage the credibility of both the Pope and the Church. Oh what a web we weave when first we practise to deceive. I hope and pray that the ACP and ACI will be able to continue, on behalf of many catholics, ” to speak respectfully and directly to church authorities and others about what matters most” (Where do we go from here? Brendan Hoban) living as Christ lived. Máire

  4. Phil Little

    As an ordained priest who took early retirement and married, my observation is that there is one fundamental rule: “money talks”. Maciel early on in his climb to power and prestige learned that gifting Vatican officials (and popes) opened doors enabling him to raise more money and so on – buying more influence and power in the Catholic world. There is no doubt that serious concerns were raised about his drug dependency and sexual activities but he built a cult like organization that the Curia could only envy – but which was useful in wielding influence. Read Jason Berry’s recent article – http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2013/03/11/father-marcial-maciel-and-the-popes-he-stained.html
    There is nothing positive to say about Maciel or his organization but the question is really “how deep did the filth penetrate the structures of the church?” With a conclave in process it is obvious that these two organizations – Opus Dei and the Legionaries – have bought the vote of a number of Cardinals – the last two popes demonstrate their influence. Will it continue?

  5. Mike O Sullivan

    Excellent article Tony, you hit the nail on the head, money=power and the LC have plenty of one which leads to the other. When I entered the seminary, all be it young and innocent, I believed in my church, I believed that it could be the greatest force for good and justice, I believed that the message of Christ would drive it, would nourish it, would bring growth,that our church would be a church of dignity,truth and a home and refuge for ALL. Now I don’t believe, I merely hope and that sadly is something I am barely hanging on to.

  6. Nuala O'Driscoll

    Congratulations also to the overwhelming majority of married couples who disregarded the ‘conservative element’ and chose not to observe the encyclical’s teaching, opting instead to follow their own authentic consciences. ‘The conservative element’ have also failed to convince Catholic women not to have abortions as Catholic women have abortions today with the same frequency as non-Catholic women.

  7. ger gleeson

    Fr Tony, the Vatican are right to try and silence you. All you are doing is clearly outlining the hypocrisy of OUR CHURCH at the highest levels. Fr Mike O Sullivan, take comfort, there are many priests and laity who are in the same boat as you.

  8. Lynne Newington

    Glory! If all the priest’s did the “right thing” by the women and the children they took part in creating in Melbourne, the Archdiocese would be extinct!
    Concecutive archbishops were still referring women over to Charity Sister Fabian Elliott’s “annexe” at St. Vincents until the early 1980’s, just ask now retired Bishop Peter Connors!
    And that’s not taking into account a couple of Franciscan paternal fathers.


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