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The Legionaries after Father Maciel

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 03, 2009

What you and I think of the late Father Marcial Maciel Degollado matters not one whit to the man himself. He has already answered to a higher authority.

But the reputation of Father Maciel is a matter of acute interest to the clerics who surrounded him during his years as leader of the Legionaries of Christ, and those who have now succeeded him. The latest reports of scandal, now proliferating rapidly over the internet, raise serious questions about the future of the Legionaries and their associated lay movement, Regnum Christi.

After holding up their founder as an object of intense veneration for decades, the Legionaries have apparently now conceded that Father Maciel was not an exemplar of virtue after all. The shock and disillusion this admission will cause to thousands of good Catholic members of Legion and Regnum Christi, who were encouraged to think of Father Maciel as a living saint, is painful to contemplate.

But what of all Father Maciel's lieutenants, who encouraged the cult of his personality? What about those Legionaries who denounced their founder's accusers, ignoring their pain and impugning their motives?

As the accusations multiply, it is more and more difficult to believe that those who were closest to Father Maciel had no inkling of his misconduct. So the old questions loom: What did they know, and when did they know it?

By acknowledging at least that their founder's conduct was "inappropriate," the Legionaries have taken the first necessary step toward healing. Much more will be needed. To restore their badly tarnished credibility, the Legionaires should undertake an aggressive investigation of their own leadership. Some obvious questions need to be answered:

  • Were other priests within the leadership aware of Father Maciel's misconduct? If not, why were they so blind? If so, why did they fail to report it?
  • When the accusations became public, did Legionary spokesmen-- and/or those who authorized their public statements-- know that the founder was guilty of misconduct? Did they know, or suspect, that the accusations were true?
  • Why have the Legionaries encouraged such adulation of their founder? Why have they taken such unusual steps to curb internal criticism? Was there a cynical effort to capitalize on a cult of personality? If so, who was responsible?
  • Were any leaders within the Legionary order covering up evidence of scandal at the same time that they continued exhorting the faithful to revere Father Maciel? If so, are they still in positions of leadership?

A year or two ago, the Legionaries might have answered such questions by saying, in effect, "Trust us." No longer. The bonds of trust are shattered, and can only be restored by candor.

Several years ago the entire Church in America was shaken by the scandal of sexual abuse. We learned, to our enduring shame, that the hierarchy had originally responded to the scandal by trying to cover up the evidence. That tactic didn't work; it never does. Next our bishops admitted some misconduct-- usually confining their admissions to what was already public knowledge-- and apologized. The apologies were not enough; they never are. So our bishops instituted a rigorous policy of punishing clerics who were guilty of sexual misconduct. But those who enabled that misconduct, those who condoned it, those who covered it up-- in all too many cases, the bishops themselves-- remain unpunished. So the taint of scandal has not yet been removed from the American hierarchy.

Let's pray that the Legionaries learn from the American bishops' bad example. Father Maciel has already received a just judgment; we need not dwell on his failings. But if the movement he founded is to thrive, and the good work done by many Legionary priests and Regnum Christi laymen is to continue untainted by scandal, anyone who enabled the founder's misconduct or, worse, profited from it, should be removed from duty.

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