Catholic Order Jolted by Reports That Its Founder Led a Double Life
The Legionaries of Christ, an influential Roman Catholic religious order, have been shaken by new revelations that their founder, who died a year ago, had an affair with a woman and fathered a daughter just as he and his thriving conservative order were winning the acclaim of Pope John Paul II.
Before his death, the founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, had been forced to leave public ministry by Pope Benedict XVI because of accusations from more than a dozen men who said he had sexually abused them when they were students.
But most members of the Legion continued to defend Father Maciel, asserting that the accusations had not been proved. Father Maciel died in January 2008 at the age of 87, and was buried in Mexico, where he was born.
Now the order’s general director, the Rev. Alvaro Corcuera, is quietly visiting its religious communities and seminaries in the United States and informing members that their founder led a double life, current and former Legionaries said.
The order is not publicly confirming the details of the scandal.
Jim Fair, a spokesman for the Legionaries, said only: “We have learned some things about our founder’s life that are surprising and difficult for us to understand. We can confirm that there are some aspects of his life that were not appropriate for a Catholic priest.”
Some former members said they expected the order to renounce its founder, but Mr. Fair said: “He is the founder and he always will be the founder of the order. That’s one of the mysteries that we all see in life is that sometimes good things come out of less than perfect human beings.”
In Catholic religious orders, members are taught to identify with the spirituality and values of the founder. That was taken to an extreme in the Legionaries, said the Rev. Stephen Fichter, a priest in New Jersey who left the order after 14 years.
“Father Maciel was this mythical hero who was put on a pedestal and had all the answers,” Father Fichter said. “When you become a Legionarie, you have to read every letter Father Maciel ever wrote, like 15 or 16 volumes. To hear he’s been having this double life on the side, I just don’t see how they’re going to continue.”
Father Fichter, once the chief financial officer for the order, said he informed the Vatican three years ago that every time Father Maciel left Rome, “I always had to give him $10,000 in cash — $5,000 in American dollars and $5,000 in the currency of wherever he was going.”
Father Fichter added: “As Legionaries, we were taught a very strict poverty; if I went out of town and bought a Bic pen and a chocolate bar, I would have to turn in the receipts. And yet for Father Maciel there was never any accounting. It was always cash, never any paper trail. And because he was this incredible hero to us, we never even questioned it for a second.”
Legionaries of Christ founder said to father child
A spokesperson for the Legionaries of Christ said Feb. 3 the order has recently reached the conclusion that its founder, a Mexican priest named Marcial Maciel Degollado who was close to the late Pope John Paul II, was guilty of conduct that is “surprising, difficult to understand, and inappropriate for a Catholic priest.”
The spokesperson, Jim Fair, who works out of the Legionaries’ U.S. headquarters in Connecticut, declined to offer any specifics in response to an NCR inquiry.
Speaking on background, however, a Legionary priest in Rome confirmed the order has learned that Maciel, who died in January 2008, apparently fathered a child out of wedlock.
Four former Legionaries or supporters of the Legion, meanwhile, told NCR that priests in the order were recently sharing this news with members and supporters in private briefings in the United States and Mexico.
Fair declined to say whether the Legion’s discoveries amount to a confirmation of earlier accusations of sexual abuse leveled against Maciel by ex-members of the order, which first became public in 1997. Those accusations were eventually the subject of an investigation by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which ended in 2006 with instructions that Maciel discontinue all public ministries and lead a life of “prayer and penance.”
Though the Vatican declined to initiate a formal canonical process against Maciel because of his advanced age, its action was widely seen as a concession that at least some of the charges against him at that time had merit.
Rumors that the Legionaries had reached new damning conclusions about Maciel have built in recent days in the wake of confidential meetings the new superior of the order, Fr. Alvaro Corcuera, has been holding with members to inform them of an internal probe of Maciel’s conduct.
Legionary sources told NCR that Corcuera has stressed that Maciel’s misconduct was not a “one-time slipup,” but rather “a pattern that stretched over years.”
Internet bloggers, some with close Legion contacts, were also active Feb. 3, reflecting the spreading news of the Maciel misconduct.
“The rank and file were told in various places – some on retreat, others in special meetings,” wrote Genvieve Kineke, on www.Life-after-rc.com, referring to the Legionaire priests who were informing Legion members and supporters.
Kineke, a former member of the Legion’s lay affiliate Regnum Christi, has written extensively about the order one her website. Regnum Christi, with a membership of roughly 50,000, is pivotal to the order’s fundraising and in running the two dozen Legion prep schools in the U.S.
Tom Hoopes, editor of the National Catholic Register, a weekly published by the Legion at its Cheshire, CT, headquarters, issued a Feb. 3 apology as a comment on the blog of a Catholic author, www.AmyWelborn.wordpress.com.
“All, I want to say is, I’m sorry. I want to say it here, because I defended Fr. Maciel here, and I need to be on the record regarding that defense,” Hoops wrote.
“I’m sorry to the victims, who were victims twice, the second time by calumny. I’m sorry, to the Church, which has been damaged. I’m sorry, to those I’ve misled….The Church did bring justice, and did penalize this man…I seek repentance and forgiveness.”
In a sign of turmoil within the Legion’s ranks, Hoops backed off his statement somewhat later that day, adding: “I’m not saying every accusation against the man is true.”
In the tightly-run lay network of Regnum Christi groups, Legion priests have held out Maciel as a saint. Some have said the Vatican punishment was a mistake, even as the order has professed strict obedience to the pope.
Since 1997, when the charges were first reported in the media, the Legion derided them as a conspiracy.
The order’s website has portrayed Maciel as a spiritual warrior, airbrushing his punishment, to fuel a fundraising engine that supports a $260 million Legion budget, including the prep schools and colleges in several countries.
In recent days, Legion supporters have clearly been shaken. According to a former Regnum Christi member with close ties to the group, when priests in Atlanta delivered the new revelations at a three-day silent retreat, “Women began sobbing.”
Author and NCR contributor Jason Berry is director a film documentary about Maciel, available at www.VowsofSilenceFilm.com.
NCR Senior Correspondent John Allen also contributed to this article.