The Legion of Christ: Sex, Abuse, Money and Lies—The Fall of Father Maciel
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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.