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Vatican Probes Scandalized Legionaries

Vatican Probes Abuse

NICOLE WINFIELD   03/16/10 01:07 PM ET   AP

VATICAN CITY — Vatican investigators have completed their probe into the Legionaries of Christ, the conservative order that was once hailed by Rome but fell into scandal after it revealed that its founder had fathered a child and had molested seminarians.

The Vatican said Tuesday its five investigators are to report back to Rome this week about their examination of the Legionaries' 120 seminaries, schools and communities around the globe. In a statement, the Legionaries said the first phase of the inquiry was over and that a final report would still take several months for Rome to complete.

While the Vatican's recommendations are unknown, Vatican analysts have speculated that the Holy See would at the very least appoint new leadership for the order and outline a series of reforms. Its recommendations will be closely watched, given the current focus on the Vatican's handling the growing sex abuse crisis convulsing the church in Europe.

Pope Benedict XVI ordered the probe last year after prominent Legionaries members acknowledged its late founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel of Mexico, had fathered a daughter and had sexually abused seminarians. Since then, a Mexican woman has come forward saying she had a lengthy relationship with Maciel, that he fathered her two sons, adopted a third and sexually abused two of them.

The disclosure of Maciel's double life has caused enormous turmoil inside the Legionaries and its lay affiliate, Regnum Christi, particularly because the leadership has been less than forthcoming with information. The order had essentially created a personality cult around Maciel, teaching that he was a hero whose life should be studied and emulated.

In the wake of the revelations, the order has taken down pictures of Maciel that used to adorn its institutes, edited its Web sites and reviewed editions of books that heavily quoted from Maciel's writings, the Legionaries' New York and Atlanta directors wrote in a letter to Regnum Christi members in September.

Still, several U.S. dioceses have either restricted the Legionaries' work or set limits on its recruitment practices. The archdiocese of Miami has barred Legionaries priests from exercising any ministry whatsoever.

The Vatican investigation was extraordinary since it only launches a so-called "apostolic visitation" when it considers a group unable to correct a major problem on its own.

In 2002, at the height of the clergy sex abuse scandal in the United States, the Vatican ordered an evaluation of all U.S. seminaries. More recently, it has ordered one for U.S. women's religions orders.

Five bishops appointed by Rome spent eight months visiting Legionaries communities to get firsthand knowledge of the order and its work. In a statement Tuesday, the Legionaries said over the next several months there may be further communications between the investigators and Rome before the pope "gives the instructions that he considers suitable and necessary."

Even after the revelations came out, questions remained about whether any current leaders covered up Maciel's misdeeds and whether any donations were used to facilitate the misconduct or pay off victims.

One of the Mexican sons allegedly fathered and abused by Maciel, Jose Raul Gonzalez, has said he asked the Legionaries of Christ for $26 million because Maciel had promised him a trust fund when he died and as financial compensation for the alleged sexual abuse.

The Legionaries was formed in 1941 and became one of the most influential and fastest-growing orders in the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II championed the group, which became known for its orthodox theology, military-style discipline, fundraising prowess and success recruiting priests at a time when seminary enrollment was generally dismal.

The group says it now has some 800 priests and 2,600 seminarians worldwide, along with 75,000 Regnum Christi members.

Yet the order and Regnum Christi had detractors throughout its rise. Critics condemned the group's secrecy vows, revoked in 2007, that barred public criticism of a superior, and its practice of limiting contact between seminarians or Regnum Christi members and their families.

The Vatican began investigating allegations against Maciel in the 1950s, and again in 1998 after nine former seminarians said Maciel had abused them when they were boys or teenagers in Catholic seminaries in Spain and Italy from the 1940s through the 1960s. Later, others came forward.

But it wasn't until 2006, a year into Benedict's pontificate, when the Vatican instructed Maciel to lead a "reserved life of prayer and penance" in response to the abuse allegations.

Maciel died in 2008 at age 87.

In the wake of the revelations, many people – both critics and Legionaries supporters alike – have questioned how an order built so firmly around the calling of its founder can survive now that he has been so discredited.

So far, at least two prominent Legionaries priests have quit the order and begun the process of joining the New York archdiocese. In a letter announcing his departure, the Rev. Richard Gill, who headed the Regnum Christi movement in New York, said he was leaving in part because of the way the scandal had been handled by the order's current leadership.

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Filed by Jed Bickman  |