The Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the charismatic founder of the religious order Legionaries of Christ, who was disgraced toward the end of his life by Vatican censure over sexual abuse accusations dating from the 1950s, is dead at the age of 87.
According to the Legionaries of Christ, the powerful Mexican priest died Wednesday of natural causes in the United States. His death was reported for the first time Thursday. The Rome-based Legionaries has a presence in Connecticut: Its U.S. headquarters is in Orange and it has operated a seminary in Cheshire.
Maciel’s death signals an end to a career marked by both accomplishment and controversy.
Although he was among the more prominent priests to be censured in the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church, his victims were disappointed in the Vatican’s censure in 2006. That action stopped short of defrocking Maciel, and instead stripped him of his public persona as a priest by removing his permission to preach or to say Mass publicly.
The Vatican also failed to recognize the accusations against Maciel directly, or acknowledge his alleged victims.
“It’s a very hard time for me to speak. At this moment I am still trying to get my emotions under control,” said Juan Vaca of Holbrook, N.Y., one of Maciel’s nine accusers. “I am a believer in God’s mercy, so I think God is taking care of this situation, but at the same time I am still expecting some justice and truth to prevail on this earth.”
New Orleans writer Jason Berry, who with Courant reporter Gerald Renner broke a 1997 story detailing the accusations against Maciel, said his death is unlikely to bring much solace to his alleged victims.
“By not delivering a full verdict, [the Vatican] certainly created the space for the Legion to reinvent Maciel as a falsely accused saint,” said Berry. He said he thought Maciel was the most notorious of the priests accused of sexual abuse in the scandal of recent years “because he amassed the greatest power.”
Maciel founded the order in 1941 when he was a 20-year-old seminarian and led it until his retirement in January 2005 — nearly a decade after sex abuse accusations against him were publicized for the first time in The Courant.
Under his leadership, the order drew scores of men to the priesthood, which earned Maciel the loyalty and gratitude of his superiors — including Pope John Paul II. Maciel was also arguably one of the most successful rainmakers of the modern church, cultivating wealthy donors on several continents.
The Legionaries of Christ reportedly has 600 priests and 2,500 seminarians in 19 countries, as well as 65,000 members in an affiliated organization called Regnum Christi.
His reputation began to take on tarnish in 1997, when nine former members of the group accused Maciel of abusing them when they were boys, aged 10 to 16, in seminaries in Spain and Italy.
Maciel and the Legionaries vigorously denied the allegations and accused the men of forming a conspiracy to defame him. He seemed to have the Vatican’s full support until 2005.
That is when church officials, under the direction of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, reopened a canon law investigation that had been inexplicably squelched in 1999. Within days, Maciel announced he was retiring as head of the Legionaries, but denied it had anything to do with the accusations against him.
The accusers, all professional men — two Mexican Americans, five Mexicans and two Spanish citizens — had tried for years to call their accusations to the attention of Pope John Paul II, but were unsuccessful. In fact, the pope appointed Maciel as his personal representative to a high-level meeting on the Americas, signaling his full support of the priest, shortly after the allegations were publicized in 1997.
After John Paul’s death, however, Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, moved to sanction Maciel. He was arguably the highest ranking priest to be censured in the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church.
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