Thursday, April 29, 2010

Legionaries break silence on founder's sex abuse

Last updated April 29, 2010 10:03 a.m. PT

Legionaries break silence on founder's sex abuse
By NICOLE WINFIELD
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER


FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2004 file photo, Pope John Paul II gives his blessing to late father Marcial Maciel, founder of Christ's Legionaries, during a special audience the pontiff granted to about four thousand participants of the Regnum Christi movement, at the Vatican.

Speaking at Rome daily La Repubblica, Rev. Luis Garza Medina, the No. 2 official in the Legionaries of Christ, has broken his silence on the eve of a Vatican meeting to discuss the fate of the order following revelations that its late founder led a double life, saying he only realized the accusations against Rev. Marciel Maciel were true in 2006, when the Vatican ordered the founder to spend the rest of his life in penance and prayer. (AP Photo/Plinio Lepri, File)
VATICAN CITY -- The No. 2 official in the conservative Legionaries of Christ order has broken his silence on revelations that the group's founder had fathered children and abused seminarians, giving an interview on the eve of a Vatican meeting to discuss the order's fate.

The Rev. Luis Garza Medina told Rome's La Repubblica newspaper Thursday that he did not know before 2006 that founder Rev. Marcial Maciel had fathered a child. He also said cases of sexual abuse by priests should be referred to civil law enforcement.

On Friday, five Vatican experts are to discuss their investigation into the order with the Vatican's No. 2 official, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Bertone ordered the probe in 2009 after the Legionaries acknowledged that Maciel had fathered a daughter who is now in her 20s and lives in Spain.

The case against Maciel is being closely watched as the Vatican struggles to show that it is serious about rooting out clerical sex abuse and being more transparent. The Maciel case has long been seen as emblematic of Vatican inaction on abuse complaints, since sex abuse victims had tried in the 1990s to bring a canonical trial against Maciel but were shut down by his supporters at the Vatican.

Only in March of this year did the Legionaries acknowledge that Maciel had also sexually abused seminarians and that two men are claiming to be his sons. One of those men has asked the Legionaries for $26 million and says Maciel had promised him and his two brothers a trust fund when he died as financial compensation for the alleged sexual abuse they endured at Maciel's hands. The third son was adopted.

Maciel died in 2008 at age 87.

The Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, has said no decisions on the order are expected after Friday's meeting, although a statement will be issued. Pope Benedict XVI, he said, will make the final decision on the order's future after studying the case.

The Legion, founded in Mexico, claims a membership of more than 800 priests and 2,500 seminarians in 22 countries, along with 70,000 members in its lay arm, Regnum Christi. It runs schools, charities, Catholic news outlets, seminaries for young boys, and universities in Mexico, Italy, Spain and elsewhere. Its U.S. headquarters are in Orange, Connecticut.

The revelations of Maciel's double life raised many questions that the Legion still hasn't publicly answered, including whether any current leaders covered up Maciel's misdeeds and whether any donations were used to facilitate the sexual misconduct or pay its victims.

Garza Medina said he only realized the accusations surrounding Maciel were true in 2006, when the Vatican sentenced Maciel to a "reserved life of penance and prayer."

"It seemed impossible, the behavior of the founder seemed impeccable," Garza Medina told La Repubblica. "With the investigation finished, I verified the paternity that was attributed to Father Maciel; at which point it was clear that the accusations were well-founded."

Asked how even Maciel's closest advisers - including himself - could have been kept in the dark, the Legionaries' vicar general said: "It was difficult to understand that there were such immoral and aberrant actions on his part."

While the Vatican issued its sentence in 2006, neither the Vatican nor the Legionaries have ever said everything that Maciel had done wrong.

Italian news reports say the most likely scenario for Benedict would be to appoint an external "commissioner" with full powers to run the order while reforms are enacted.

What becomes of the current leadership - in particular Garza Medina - is unclear. Veteran Vatican correspondent Sandro Magister recently wrote in Italian newsweekly L'Espresso that Garza Medina heads the holding company that acts as the treasury for the Legion, with assets totaling euro25 billion ($33 billion).

In the interview Thursday, Garza Medina laughed at the figure, saying such estimates were "false." He said any profits that are made are immediately reinvested or put in pensions or medical care funds for its members.

"In 2009, our activities in all the world produced about $40 million, which was reinvested," he said.

Jason Berry, co-author of the book and documentary "Vows of Silence," about victims' attempts to persuade the Vatican to discipline Maciel, said Garza Medina's acknowledgment that he was convinced of Maciel's crimes only in 2006 is problematic, since the order continued holding Maciel up as a role model until 2010.

"Why on earth would he allow a public statement to go out when Maciel had died saying he had gone to heaven?" Berry asked. "They did not apologize to the victims nor acknowledge that the abuse occurred until March of this year."

The Legion was founded in Mexico in 1941 and its culture was built around Maciel. His photo adorned every Legion building, his biography and writings were studied, and his birthday was celebrated as a feast day. Until recently, Legion members took a vow not to criticize their superiors, including Maciel.

Pope John Paul II had long championed the Legionaries for their orthodoxy and ability to bring in vocations and money.

The revelations of Maciel's double life caused enormous turmoil inside the Legionaries and its lay affiliate Regnum Christie, with priests leaving the order and Legion officials steadily announcing changes meant to demonstrate the movement is reforming.

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