NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — As founder of the Legionaries of Christ, the Rev. Marcial Maciel is a central figure for the thousands of followers in the Roman Catholic order. Students study his life, portray him in skits to celebrate his birthday and follow his instructions on everything from table manners to how to wear their hair.
But the controversial order likely will face dramatic changes with the conclusion of a Vatican investigation into allegations that Maciel sexually abused seminarians decades ago. Pope Benedict XVI requested Friday that Maciel no longer celebrate public Masses, and that he should live a life of “prayer and penance.”
The church did not say if the allegations were true, but experts say the Vatican would not have imposed a severe penalty without finding at least some validity to the complaints.
“It would be like teaching the Franciscans they shouldn’t talk about St. Francis,” said the Rev. James Martin, associate editor of the Jesuit magazine America. “I think the order will survive, but it will be a very difficult few years for them.”
The order, which has its U.S. headquarters in Orange, includes some 600 priests and 2,500 seminarians in 20 countries in North and South America, Europe and Australia. In the United States, it operates boarding schools in New Hampshire, California and Indiana for boys interested in the priesthood.
Some predict a decline in new seminarians and students.
“Any parent who would send their child of that age to a group founded by a monster of that type has to be out of their mind,” said Glenn Faureau, a board member of ReGAIN, a Virginia-based group of former Legionaries who criticize the order as cult-like and offer workshops, counseling and other activities to people who leave the group and have trouble readjusting to secular life.
The Legionaries has been a favorite of many traditional Catholics in the United States, for the order’s loyalty to church teaching and its success in recruiting priests despite a clergy shortage. Many had defended Maciel, an 86-year-old Mexican priest, arguing that liberals were making the abuse claims to undermine him.
Still, some conservatives question the order’s approach to recruitment. Some bishops have complained that they begin operations in a diocese without informing church leaders. Other critics have accused them of luring candidates for the priesthood away from diocesan seminaries.
The Rev. Joseph Fessio, a conservative Jesuit and founder of Ignatius Press, the U.S. publisher for Pope Benedict, said, “this tremendous zeal for souls of the Legionaries sometimes leads them into kind of exaggerated forms of recruitment.”
Some dioceses around the country have restricted and even banned the order in recent years, citing its secretive nature and concerns that it was creating a separate church within the church.
Legionary officials have refused to comment and referred reporters to a statement released Friday that said Maciel, while declaring himself innocent, accepted the Vatican decision “with faith, complete serenity and tranquility of conscience.”
Some experts say the order probably has little choice but to distance itself from its founder.
“It puts them in a very difficult position,” said Paul Lakeland, a professor of religious studies at Fairfield University. “The only way they can really challenge this is to challenge the papacy. The thing they might have in their favor is he might die soon.”
The Rev. Donald Cozzens, a former seminary rector and author of “The Changing Face of the Priesthood,” predicted the penalty would not slow the Legion’s priest recruitment because conservative Catholics have so embraced the religious order’s work.
“Should this not shake the very foundations of the Legionaries? My answer is yes, it should, but it won’t,” Cozzens said. “The conservative mindset among Catholics today is one of fear – fear that our secular culture is taking over and watering down Christianity and Catholicism.
“For those Catholics who are fearful and wary of the world, religious movements and orders like the Legionaries and other conservative groups have a strong attraction, and I think they will continue to have a strong attraction.”
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