The Legion of Christ: Sex, Abuse, Money and Lies—The Fall of Father Maciel
AP Photo/Plinio Lepri, File
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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.