ROME, May 19 — The Vatican announced Friday that it had disciplined the most prominent priest to be accused of sexual abuse, taking a step that Pope John Paul II had long resisted.
Without addressing specific allegations, the Vatican statement said the priest, the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, 86, the founder of the conservative Legionaries of Christ, had been asked to give up his public ministry in favor of a quiet life of “prayer and penitence.”
But in veering so close to a finding of guilt, the decision was widely seen as a defining moment for Pope Benedict XVI on a delicate issue for the Roman Catholic Church.
The statement said Father Maciel, who started the order in Mexico, would be spared an ecclesiastical trial because of his “advanced age” and “weak health.” The Vatican did not disclose the allegations, but at least nine men have accused him of molesting them as youthful seminarians.
The statement said the Vatican’s doctrinal office had decided “to invite the father to a life restricted to prayer and penitence, renouncing any public ministry.”
“The Holy Father has approved these decisions,” it added.
The Legionaries, now based in Connecticut, issued a statement noting that Father Maciel had long “declared his innocence” but had decided not to defend himself, “following the example of Jesus.”
The group said he “has accepted this communique’ with faith, complete serenity and tranquillity of conscience, knowing that it is a new cross that God, the Father of Mercy, has allowed him to suffer.”
Father Maciel stepped down from the order’s leadership last year.
Reactions to the Vatican decision varied, with some praising the pope for taking so public a stand and others saying it did not go far enough, given the seriousness of the allegations against Father Maciel himself and the wider crisis of confidence in the church over sexual abuse.
“I am still jumping for joy,” said Alejandro Espinosa Alcala’, who came forward on behalf of the seminarians. “I never thought the Vatican would decide to take such a significant step.
“We told the truth and Maciel was lying. That’s the position, the great truth that is being revealed, that he is the victimizer and we are the victims. We are not slanderers.”
Juan Vaca, a former priest in the Legionaries who said Father Maciel abused him for 10 years starting in 1950, when he was 12, said he felt Father Maciel should be removed from the priesthood entirely — something the Vatican decision did not do.
“It’s not enough,” Mr. Vaca, an adjunct professor of psychology and sociology at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., said in an interview on Thursday as rumors of the decision began leaking out. “Because this man has done a lot of damage to a lot of people — to children and supporters and even the hierarchy of the church.”
The decision was first made public on Thursday on the Web site of National Catholic Reporter. The Vatican document did not specify exactly what duties Father Maciel would be barred from, but National Catholic Reporter quoted anonymous Vatican officials as saying he could not celebrate Mass publicly or give speeches or interviews.
Since its founding in 1941, the order has tracked an impressive arc of growth and influence, with Father Maciel as its charismatic helmsman. It now has 650 priests worldwide, 2,500 seminarians in 20 countries and 50,000 members in its lay affiliate, Regnum Christi. The Legionaries run a dozen universities and recently opened their first degree-granting college in the United States, the University of Sacramento.
“The Vatican’s move is going to be devastating, because unlike a lot of religious orders like the Jesuits, the Legion is the cult of the persona of Maciel,” said Todd Carpunky, a lawyer in New York City who belonged to the Legionaries for six years as a religious brother. “When you go to a Legion home or a Legion center there are pictures of Maciel hanging next to pictures of Jesus. The Legionaries always call him ‘Nuestro Padre,’ which in Spanish means ‘Our Father.’ “
Pope John Paul II repeatedly praised Father Maciel and his work, most recently at a public audience on Nov. 30, 2004, marking the 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.
During a trip to Mexico in 1994, Pope John Paul called him “an efficacious guide to youth” — a statement that several accusers said had prompted them to make complaints.
Two years later, nine former seminarians came forward in newspaper articles and a book, “Vows of Silence,” saying Father Maciel had abused them when they were between the ages of 10 and 16.
As an indication of his influence, a number of American Catholics wrote testimonials defending him on the Legionaries’ Web site in 2002. They included George Weigel, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, Mary Ann Glendon, William J. Bennett and William Donohue.
On Friday, Father Neuhaus, editor of First Things, an ecumenical magazine based in New York, said he still believed that the charges against Father Maciel were unfounded. “There is nothing in the Vatican statement that suggests that the word penance is meant as a punitive measure,” he said.
Asked why the Vatican would take any action, he said, “It wouldn’t be the first time that an innocent and indeed holy person was unfairly treated by church authority.”
But others felt the Vatican did not go far enough. “They have negotiated with a criminal,” said Alberto Athie’, a Mexican former priest who sought a Vatican investigation in 1998 on behalf of the former seminarians. “What prevails once again is that the most important thing is to safeguard the prestige of the ministries and safeguard the image of the institution above the truth and human rights.”
The Maciel case has presented a complex tableau for the church’s willingness to confront allegations of sexual abuse, the legacy of Pope John Paul II and what many church experts say is Pope Benedict’s evolving view on the issue.
Pope John Paul was often criticized for minimizing the scandal as it broke in the United States, and many accusers cited as one gray area in his papacy his long friendship and public support of Father Maciel.
“I don’t think he could ever get his mind around this business,” said John Wilkins, the former editor of the influential British Catholic magazine The Tablet. “For him the priesthood was such a high ideal.”
The issue is more complicated for Pope Benedict, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed the church’s doctrinal office. He was cited in “Vows of Silence” as wondering in 1999 whether it was “prudent” to pursue the allegations against Father Maciel, given the priest’s contributions to the church. That year, Cardinal Ratzinger reportedly halted the case against Father Maciel.
But colleagues and other church experts said his view began to change as his office was flooded with allegations of sex abuse. In 2004 his office reopened the case against Father Maciel, interviewing dozens of accusers and other witnesses. Then, before he became pope, Cardinal Ratzinger spoke last year of the need to remove “filth” from the church, widely interpreted to mean priests who abused children.
Jason Berry, co-author of “Vows of Silence,” said the judgment announced Friday showed that the Vatican was still uncertain how to deal with the issue or how to apply church law evenly in the face of the mountain of allegations. While some priests have been defrocked, he noted, the better-connected Father Maciel received a lighter sanction.
“You could look at it as an attempt to be Solomonic, cutting the baby down the middle,” he added. “And yet what it really does is raise more questions about the inability of the canon law system to function.”
Ian Fisher reported from Rome for this article, and Laurie Goodstein from New York. Elizabeth Malkin contributed reporting from Mexico City.
Possibly Related Products
Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission — at no additional cost to you — for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this service free of charge.