The Legion of Christ: Sex, Abuse, Money and Lies—The Fall of Father Maciel
AP Photo/Plinio Lepri, File
One of the great fallacies within the Roman Catholic Church in the late-20th and early-21st centuries has been that the abuse of minors by the clergy was an American issue, with lawsuits brought by a litigious society and sensationalized by the American media. Another belief among church officials has been that Vatican II and homosexuals in the seminaries were to blame for the scandal. Some believed that it was Satan’s work. Yet others charged that the young victims themselves were at fault for seducing priests.
But perhaps the greatest fallacy has been the belief by the Church’s hierarchy that if enough money was shelled out to pay off victims—an estimated $3 billion so far in the United States alone, according to Bishop Accountability, a nonprofit organization that documents clergy sexual-abuse cases—and enough apologies were finally uttered, the problem would go away.
Not so. Not for the estimated tens of thousands of victims throughout the United States, Canada and Europe, and especially not for the victims of Marcial Maciel Degollado—known to his followers and victims simply as Father Maciel—the charismatic and powerful founder of the Legion of Christ, the secretive religious order headquartered in Cheshire, Conn.
For many of these men—former novitiates and seminarians, among others who spent years under Rev. Maciel’s spell—the apologies have come a half-century too late, with little to no compensation for the abuses they suffered and no end to the suffering.
This summer in Superior Court in New Haven, two victims—Jose Raul Gonzalez Lara, 33, and his stepbrother, Omar, 37—are continuing to seek recompense for the sins of the father. Literally: Raul is the illegitimate son of Maciel, who Raul claims repeatedly abused both boys while he led an international religious order, lived out of wedlock with one woman and fathered a daughter with a second, and was a morphine addict—yet won both protection from the Vatican and praise from the late Pope John Paul II, who called him “an efficacious leader of youth.”
Their civil suit, which began in 2010, shows no signs of being settled anytime soon: As the Bridgeport and Hartford dioceses have done in the past when confronted with sexual-abuse cases, the legion has caused delays in the discovery phase of the New Haven case, according to the plaintiffs’ attorneys, forcing them to translate documents into Italian and to appeal to The Hague for documents they need. At stake is millions of dollars. The religious order is believed to be worth billions.
“The legion is fighting the disclosure of the files that they have very hard,” says Minneapolis attorney Jeff Anderson, who since 1983 has handled close to 3,000 sexual-abuse cases involving the Catholic Church. Anderson is co-representing Maciel’s sons with New Haven attorney Joel Faxon.
A long line of Maciel’s alleged victims, stretching back to the 1950s and from Mexico to Spain, will be awaiting the outcome of the New Haven trial, tentatively scheduled for sometime in 2014.
The story of Maciel and the Legion of Christ (also known as the Legionaries of Christ) is a long and twisted tale of lust for many things—wealth, power, drugs, youth—but also for control over his and the Legion’s image, influence and ability to raise money.
Born into a large family in south-central Mexico that included four uncles who were bishops, Marcial Maciel Degollado was just 20 years old in 1941 when he undertook the religious training of a group of 12- and 13-year-old boys. He was tall and thin with penetrating eyes—eyes, according to one former seminarian, that seemed to “see into your soul.”
Despite reportedly failing to complete studies at two seminaries, he was ordained at 24 by one of his uncles and immediately founded a new order, based on moral rectitude and militaristic discipline. Its mission: To evangelize the Catholic world.
From very early on, Maciel’s Legion was notable for the cultlike control it exerted over the lives of its young disciples. Adolescent and prepubescent boys were isolated from their parents and relatives for long periods of time, with little to no communication. As “superior general” of the order, Maciel demanded absolute loyalty from his charges and insisted they take vows of poverty and chastity, but also an unusual pledge never to criticize him—and to report fellow seminarians who did.
Loyalty to the man they called “Nuestro Padre” (“Our Father”) went beyond other boundaries, as well. One of Maciel’s earliest victims was Juan Vaca, who was 10 when the founder personally invited him to join the Legion. One night two years later, the 12-year-old was called to the superior’s bedroom to attend to what would become a familiar complaint and remedy. Maciel claimed to suffer from abdominal pains that required, in addition to opiates, stomach rubs at the hands of young Legionaries. As other victims would later corroborate, Maciel claimed that he had a dispensation from Pope Pius XII to use boys to relieve his pain. The rubs inevitably resulted in mutual masturbation.
Maciel was adept at wooing adults in positions of power to raise large sums of money. In 1970 he formed Regnum Christi, a lay movement that would eventually number 60,000 members, to help recruit more prominent Catholics and raise yet more money.
Jason Berry, the groundbreaking investigative reporter for the National Catholic Reporter whose 1992 book Lead Us Not Into Temptation first exposed the sexual abuse of minors and the widespread coverup within the church, has written extensively about Maciel and the Legion of Christ. His 2008 film Vows of Silence documents the complicity of the Vatican in Maciel’s long reign of abuse and misuse of leadership.
According to Berry, the founder targeted wealthy widows and benefactors in order to bankroll the Legion and support the mothers of his children. A revered figure in the Holy City, the priest was known to give gifts and cash to higher-ups in the Vatican.
“In essence, he was buying friendships and protection as he gradually saw his past catch up with him,” says Berry. “He would work a crowd like a senator with silver between his fingers. He was the greatest fundraiser of the post-World War II church, and equally its greatest criminal.”
Beginning in 1956, the Vatican did launch an investigation into Maciel’s drug use, misuse of funds and other unnamed improprieties, but sexual abuse was not part of it and nothing ever came of the inquiry, which ended in 1958, the year Pope Pius XII died.
In fact, more than 40 years would pass before anything came of attempts to diminish the superior general’s dark powers.
Friends in Holy Places
So good was Marcial Maciel at fund-raising, brokering influence and recruiting new priests at a time of declining vocations, that by the 1990s he had established prep schools, novitiates, seminaries and retreats in 19 countries, including the Legionaries of Christ’s Center for Higher Studies and an opulent retreat for Bishops in Rome. The order also owned five properties in Connecticut and Westchester County, N.Y., and two Catholic newspapers, The National Catholic Register and Twin Circle.
Moreover, Maciel had convinced the hierarchy in Rome that he was above reproach. In 1983, Pope John Paul II officially approved the Legion’s “private vows,” which effectively shielded the founder not just from criticism but from further investigation. Money had greased the way, of course. Billions of dollars, raised primarily in Latin America, were reportedly sent to Rome.
Meanwhile, Juan Vaca had risen in the order’s ranks to head the Legionaries in the United States, but had grown increasingly despondent and desperate. In 1978 and again in 1989, Vaca, along with fellow Legionarie Jose de J. Barba Martin, sent letters through church channels to John Paul II, charging that for years Maciel had sexually and psychologically abused them and seven others in Mexico and in Spain, where the order operated seminaries. The Holy Father did not respond to either. (In the 1989 letter, Vaca asked to be released from his vows as a priest, a request that was granted.)
When Berry and the late Gerald Renner broke Vaca’s and Barba’s story in the Hartford Courant in 1997, it unleashed a backlash not against the church and the Legion of Christ, but a torrent of denunciations against the accusers.
Owen Kearns, editor of The National Catholic Register at the time, wrote in the paper and on the Legion’s website, “Vaca is just one of the disgruntled old men instigating a campaign of lies and calumnies against our beloved and innocent founder.” In addition, the Legion filed suit against former Legionarie J. Paul Lennon, who had left the order and the priesthood after opposing Maciel’s fund-raising tactics, forcing him to take down a website (regainnetwork.org) devoted to helping other ex-Legionaries heal.
Four years later, according to Vaca, he and the other victims filed a lawsuit against the Vatican to have Maciel excommunicated. But, they say, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals and a Maciel supporter, and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who headed the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, quashed the suit.
When an ABC News reporter approached Ratzinger on a Rome street to discuss the abuse crisis in the church, and when asked about Maciel, the future pontiff slapped the correspondent’s hand. According to ABC News reporter Brian Ross, a written response later came from Legion of Christ spokesman, the Rev. Tom Williams, who called the allegations “patently false.” (In 2012, Williams confessed to having a wife and daughter, and a year later resigned from the Legion and the priesthood.)
It wasn’t until the mid-1990s and the revelation of Maciel’s double life—or quadruple life, as leader of the Legion, sexual abuser, drug addict and father of children with two or more women—that the church finally had to reassess the man it had considered a saint as well as cash-cow. In 2006, Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, banished Maciel from leadership of the Legion and from Rome, chastising him for a “twisted, wasted life.”
Yet if members of the hierarchy and Regnum Christi were taken aback by the revelations, none were more stunned than Maciel’s sons. During his infrequent visits and on trips when he had abused them, he had told them he was a Shell Oil Co. executive and a C.I.A. agent. They had believed him.
In early June of this year, attorney Jeff Anderson and Faxon got ahold of one of four passports Maciel kept, which was issued to him under the name Rodriguez y Gonzalez and signed Jaime A. Gonzalez. His sons only learned their father’s true identity in 1997 when the story landed on the cover of a magazine in Mexico City and Maciel called to instruct them to buy up every copy they could.
For what they were worth, the Legion and church eventually issued apologies to Juan Vaca and Jose Barga. Separately, Owen Kearns apologized to J. Paul Lennon and others, including reporters Renner and Berry.
Marcial Maciel died in 2008 at the age of 86, still a priest, with a personal estate worth an estimated $6 million, which he left to the Legion. The order claims that in 2010 Raul Gonzalez tried to extort $26 million from them in exchange for keeping quiet about Maciel, a charge Gonzalez’s lawyers have denied.
Before stepping down from the chair of St. Peter, Pope Benedict stated that he wanted to compensate the Legionaries who were abused. But that may be easier said than done.
For one thing, there is no formal apparatus within the Vatican for compensating victims, and Benedict is no longer Pope. For another, with the order’s leader and main fundraiser both disgraced and dead, the Legionaries have found themselves at a loss.
In 2012, the order’s original Connecticut headquarters on 25 acres in Orange was sold to developers for new homes and a vineyard. In Westchester County, two properties totaling 365 acres—a former IBM conference center in Mount Pleasant and a mansion outside Mount Kisco that had once belonged to the late Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church—were also put on the market. The Legion had intended to build seminaries and a college campus on the Westchester land.
There is also the question of the Legionaries’ fund-raising tactics, which have come under increasing scrutiny. For reporter Jason Berry, “the question of fraud to me just shouts out like a scream in the night.” In fact, during the past year relatives of two major benefactors in Rhode Island have sued the Legion for recovery of millions of dollars in donations that they claim were coerced from devout, elderly Catholics by Legionaries and members of Regnum Christi at a time when both the religious order and the Vatican were aware of grave improprieties in Maciel’s conduct.
Finally, money moves in mysterious ways in the Catholic Church, but especially in the Legion. Whatever monies do exist may be so well hidden as to be unrecoverable, at least anytime soon, because Legion of Christ funds are controlled not by the order but by Grupo Integer, a Mexican holding company that manages all of the order’s finances and properties. It is believed to be run, if not in name then in actuality, by the Rev. Luis Garza Medina, a member of one of Mexico’s most powerful families.
Whatever may eventually be awarded by the jury in New Haven, no amount of money is likely to heal the souls of Maciel’s sons.
“In each of these cases, these men were betrayed in a triple way,” says attorney Anderson. “Each trusted this man as their father. They trusted him as an authority figure. And then they came to learn that he was a very powerful and internationally known priest. And when he violated them sexually and repeatedly, he in essence robbed each of them of who they could have been, and shaped who they are.”
As for Juan Vaca, healing has come at the end of a long mental and emotional process of distancing himself from life as a victim and “analyzing the dynamics,” as he says, that allowed Marcial Maciel to inflict so much damage for so long.
Now 76 and married with a teenaged daughter, Vaca is a professor of psychology and sociology at Mercy College in New York and still a practicing Catholic. Years ago he accepted a small, out-of-court settlement from the Legion in order to put the ordeal behind him.
“This is one of the reasons I went into psychology,” he says of his healing process. “Maciel created the Legion of Christ to have his own kingdom—a kingdom to sexually abuse boys. I also wanted to analyze that the Vatican allowed such a monster to prosper for many, many years? My conclusion was that the Catholic hierarchy is corrupt, and Benedict XVI was a very weak man in all respects. To me he is guilty of covering up, he’s guilty of enabling.
“At this point I am over anger,” he continues. “I forgave him [Maciel] in my heart because that belongs to God. I forgave also the Legionaries who damaged my reputation. I understand. I am at peace with myself. I know all the evils, not only in the Catholic Church. It’s a fact of life. I know where all these evils are coming from—it’s not a mystery. Benedict XVI once said that the Maciel case is a mystery for him, and I sent him a letter saying, no, it’s not a mystery. I explained the dynamics that made this monster prevail for so many decades.
“I won’t let any evil damage my life anymore.”
Onward Christian Soldiers
At its height, the Legion of Christ claimed 800 priests and 2,500 seminarians in the U.S., Europe and Latin America, though Jason Berry discounts these numbers. “The Legion, I think, is a cult,” he says, “and it’s pretty hard to get any accurate information from them.”
Today, it continues to operate in Connecticut and elsewhere, if on a smaller scale, with a strange mix of secrecy, awareness and youthful fervor.
Jim Fair, a legion spokesperson, declined Connecticut Magazine’s request for an interview with Legionaries or a visit to the order’s headquarters in Cheshire. Yet daily Mass in the legion’s chapel is open to the public, and one Friday morning in late spring this writer arrived a few minutes before the start of the 7:30 a.m. Mass.
A long drive winds through 107 acres of rolling lawns and mature trees before reaching a complex of flat-roofed brick buildings hidden from the main road, designed in the tradition of no-nonsense Roman Catholic institutions. The late William Casey, director of the CIA under Ronald Reagan, and his wife reportedly made a seven-figure donation to the Legion for construction of one of the buildings here.
On this morning, the door leading to the chapel is wide open to the sun and air. In the middle of the large, marble-floored foyer, a young Asian brother appears stationed to welcome outsiders.
Two minutes before the start of the Mass, some 70 novitiates and seminarians begin filing into the chapel. Like the greeter, they are dressed in a ankle-length black cassocks bound at the waist with a wide black sash and, like him, too, they are startlingly young-looking, all the more boyish for their short, neatly combed hair and for the innocence with which they yawn and wipe sleep from their eyes. They are also serious-looking, even pious, and with the exception of a handful of fair-haired young men, they are tall and dark.
Following the service, conducted in Latin and made the more ancient and solemn with Gregorian chants—another young seminarian is stationed near the outer door. He is fresh-faced, enthusiastic and talkative. Originally from Atlanta, he is studying at the Cheshire headquarters for two years before leaving to recruit new members.
Asked what impact Maciel’s legacy has had on his vocation and faith, he says, “I came in after the scandal, so it didn’t affect me. But,” he adds, as if to fortify his commitment to the Legion, “God works through broken instruments, which is mind-boggling and mysterious.”
“Mind-boggling and mysterious.” The same could be said of the actions and inactions of popes Pius XII, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Cardinal Sodano, members of Regnum Christi, and everyone else complicit in the travesty that was Marcial Maciel and his Legion of Christ.