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Pope orders apostolic visitation of Legionaries of Christ March 31, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI has ordered an apostolic visitation of the Legionaries of Christ (LC), in response to the turmoil roused by new revelations that the group's founder, the late Father Marcial Maciel, had apparently led a double life, marked by sexual and fiscal improprieties.

Father Alvaro Corcuera, the LC superior revealed plans for the apostolic visitation in a March 29 letter to members of the order. "With deep gratitude we have experienced the closeness of the Holy See at this phase in the life of our congregation," Father Corcuera wrote. He said that the Vatican investigation would provide "additional help to face our present vicissitudes related to the grave facts in our father founder’s life."

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone had notified the LC leadership of the Pope's decision 3 weeks earlier. In a March 10 letter to Father Corcuera, the Vatican Secretary of State announced that "the Holy Father has decided to carry out an apostolic visitation to the institutions of the Legionaries of Christ through a team of prelates." The cardinal assured the LC leader that "you can always count on the help of the Holy See, so that with truth and transparency, in a climate of fraternal and constructive dialogue, you will overcome the present difficulties."

Specific plans for the apostolic visitation-- including the timing of the probe and the prelates who will participate-- have not yet been disclosed.

Calls for direct Vatican intervention into the activities of the LC were raised earlier this year after the order acknowledged that Father Maciel had engaged in serious misconduct. Although the LC leadership has never specifically disclosed the details of that misconduct, it is understood that the LC founder was the father of at least one child, and diverted funds to care the child and her mother as well as for his own personal comfort. These revelations were particularly damaging because members of the LC and the affiliated lay movement, Regnum Christi, had been encouraged to look upon Father Maciel as a spiritual mentor and model for emulation.

After an earlier investigation into charges that Father Maciel had engaged in sexual abuse of young LC members, the Vatican in 2006 called upon the LC founder to remove himself from public ministry and spend his last days in "prayer and penance." Father Maciel died in January 2008 at the age of 87. At that time the LC leadership still asserted his innocence, suggesting that the founder had willingly borne false accusations for the welfare of the Church.

The official posture of the LC order changed early in 2009, with a public acknowledgement that the founder had engaged in unspecified actions that "weren’t appropriate for a Catholic priest.” The new revelations about Father Maciel raised new questions about the leadership of the order, and the possibility that some current LC officials had covered up the founder's misconduct. Questions were also raised about whether a healthy religious order could be established by a man who led a double life. The LC leadership responded to the latter line of questioning by pointing out that the Vatican has officially recognized the validity of the charism of the order.

The Pope's decision to undertake an apostolic visitation answers the argument that LC and Regnum Christi members would need the help of a trusted independent source-- which could be ensured only by the Holy See-- to know whether the order as a whole is tainted by the corruption that was manifest in the life of the founder. The apostolic visitation might also look into other charges that have been leveled against the order-- such as the charges that spiritual directors have violated the consciences of members.

A vigorous and growing order with a firm commitment to orthodox Catholicism, the Legionaries of Christ have been hounded for years by critics who complained that the order is rigid and authoritarian. Strongly defended for years by the Vatican, the order saw a decline in its influence in Rome after the election of Pope Benedict XVI, and particularly after Cardinal Bertone succeeded Cardinal Angelo Sodano as Secretary of State.

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