CHICAGO — The Legion of Christ announced July 15 that Father Luis Garza, the vicar general of the embattled religious congregation, has resigned and will assume leadership of its newly created “Legion Territory of North America,” which combines the current Atlanta and New York-based territories.
The news about the appointment and the consolidation of the two U.S. Legion territories was posted on the Legion of Christ’s website, accompanied by statements from several members of the order’s leadership.
Father Garza will leave his post in Rome and assume his new duties Aug. 1, in a new development likely to fuel criticism and speculation from some present and former members of the order. Many have called for the order’s leadership — most notably Father Garza and Legionary Father Alvaro Corcuera, the general director — to resign after the explosive scandal generated by the confirmed abuse allegations against the founder, Father Marcial Maciel, resulted in a loss of moral credibility, membership and financial support.
Cardinal Velasio De Paolis — the pontifical delegate for the Legionaries, charged with overseeing reforms that will pave the way for a new constitution — also has been criticized for allowing Father Garza and other Legion leaders to remain in their posts.
In a July 3 speech, Cardinal De Paolis vented his frustration at the negative impact of “dissenters,” as he offered a “provisional assessment” of issues to be addressed before the Legion’s general chapter meeting, which will not be held before 2013.
The announcement posted on the Legion’s website acknowledged the difficulties that lie ahead, but held out hope for members and supporters of the order.
“America and Canada are countries that I have always admired, and I am humbled to serve as territorial director of the united territory,” said Father Garza in the public statement. “We face challenges, but I am confident that with God’s grace and the great dedication and enthusiasm of Legionaries and Regnum Christi consecrated and lay members we will be able to serve the Church.”
Father Corcuera confirmed that Father Garza’s appointment was made in “consultation with the Legion’s papal delegate” and at the request of the Legionary priests who presently direct the U.S. territories, Father John Connor and Father Julio Marti.
Father Corcuera presented Father Garza’s appointment as a stabilizing move. Last week, the order announced that the recently established University of Sacramento and the Immaculate Conception Apostolic School, a pre-seminary program for adolescent boys, would close. Last year, the Georgia-based Southern Catholic College was shuttered. Two K-8 schools also have been closed: Gateway Academy in St. Louis, and Woodmont Academy in Maryland.
“We are working together to face the challenges for our communities and our apostolates around the world, and with particular intensity in the United States and Canada,” said Father Corcuera. “We must lay more solid foundations on which to build and relaunch our service to the Church in those countries.”
Father Garza completed undergraduate studies in engineering at Stanford University when he was 19 years old. After entering the Legion, he studied in Rome, receiving licenciates in philosophy and theology and a doctorate in canon law.
But former Legionaries, who have called for the resignation of the present leadership, greeted the new appointment with skepticism and disappointment.
“Most recent changes among major superiors of the Legion have involved the same people interchanging positions. The appointment of Father Garza is a further example of this,” said Father Richard Gill, who left the order last year and now serves as a priest in the New York Archdiocese.
“Independently of his [Father Garza’s] many qualities, I fear that unless and until a new generation of leaders emerges — leaders not tainted by long and close association with Father Maciel — the effort to purify and reform the Legion will lack the public credibility needed to succeed,” said Father Gill, an associate pastor at St. Lawrence O’Toole Church in Brewster, N.Y.
Jack Keogh, a former Legionary priest who held a number of senior positions before his resignation, recently published a book about his experience in the congregation. He took a slightly different view of Father Garza’s appointment.
“It remains to be seen if this move is also designed to manage internal dissent in the U.S.,” he said. “While Father Garza has formidable skills, management experience and powerful connections to contribute to his new job, I suspect that this is really a transitional move designed to begin the process of dismantling current central leadership. Meanwhile, Father Garza can claim not to have been demoted.”
Keogh also retains a sharp memory of Luis Garza as a bright boy who arrived at the Legion’s Irish Institute in Monterrey, Mexico, while Keogh, then a member of the order, worked at the school. The Irish Institute was the pre-eminent Catholic boys’ school in Monterrey, the nation’s business center.
Keogh, who now serves as a management consultant, suggested that Father Garza’s resignation as vicar general and new appointment “may be a classic Vatican-style political move: Father Garza resigns as vicar general of the Legion in order to take control of the new ‘Legion Territory of North America.’ That way, he is removed from his key position in Rome without ‘losing face.’ Meanwhile, the former territorial directors, Fathers Julio Martí and John Connor, are moved aside.”
Father Garza had served as the Legion’s vicar general since 1992. He remains a consultor to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy; he was appointed to that five-year position by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008.
As vicar general of a once pre-eminent order that now faces demands for radical reform, Father Garza has managed the considerable logistical and personnel challenges generated by the scandal’s impact on the Legion and Regnum Christi.
Globally, there are 3 bishops among approximately 3,300 Legionaries, including priests, Religious and novices (brothers). In a statistical report for the Holy See, the Legion confirmed that in the years 2009 and 2010, a total of 42 Legionary priests left the congregation.
“The great majority of them are currently exercising their priestly ministry in a diocese while the canonical process is underway for their definitive incardination in the diocesan clergy,” confirmed Jim Fair, the order’s U.S. spokesman.
In a published statement, Father Garza acknowledged that it had been difficult to meet with grieving Legionaries and Regnum Christi members to console them after an investigation confirmed the allegations against the founder, who was also found to have fathered at least two children and kept several mistresses.
“Sharing shattering news with my fellow priests in the Legion and the consecrated members has been a dreadful experience,” he said. “We are all sad for the people who have suffered with all this and wish that with our penance and actions we could somehow repair the damage that has been done.”
Father Corcuera stressed the Legion will continue “to consolidate our communities and apostolates in such a way that the religious and consecrated members, under the care of the superiors and directors, have all the support they need.”
There is considerable anxiety regarding the order’s ability to stem the flow of departures by its priests and secure its finances.
Cardinal De Paolis noted in his recent speech to members of the Legion: “While it is true that in 2010 the institute suffered its greatest losses, it is also true that the exodus has been contained with regard to priests.”
But the cardinal criticized “the negative influence exercised by some companions who, upon entering the process of renewal, have adopted an absolutely critical attitude towards the path of renewal.”
“From the beginning, a group of members have joined together and been described, by whom I don’t know, as ‘dissidents,’” the cardinal continued.
Father Gill challenged the cardinal’s criticism of “dissenters.”
“In an earlier statement, the cardinal said the seminarians were leaving because their parents were unduly influenced by media reports. Now he appears to be saying seminarians are leaving because of dissenting voices. That is unfair and doesn’t even take into account they would make decisions because of their conscience,” said Father Gill.
The cardinal, he charged, “has botched any possibility of an investigation on how Father Maciel got away with this for so long and any possibility of holding [accountable] anyone who may have been complicit.”
Still, Keogh insists that he, like many other Legionary priests, never saw criminal behavior, though he did take note of some surprising behavior — such as the founder’s absence at daily Mass.
Keogh also remembers how the young Luis Garza finished high school at 16 and came from a wealthy family of entrepreneurs that continued to back the Legion over the decades, entrusting children and treasure to support the rapidly expanding religious order.
Today, members of Father Garza’s extended family are reportedly divided over their loyalties to the Legion.
The announcement posted on the Legion’s website did not address the order’s standing in Mexico, where Father Maciel first recruited boys and young men, including those who would later accuse him of sexual abuse. Critics allege that the first generation of young recruits, some of whom remain in senior positions — though not in the top leadership — were most likely to have witnessed the abuse and remained silent.
At present, no individuals within the order have been publicly singled out for blame by Church authorities. However, last year, on May 1, 2010, the Holy See issued a strong statement following the conclusion of an apostolic investigation into the Legion scandal.
“The apostolic visitation was able to ascertain that the behavior of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado has caused serious consequences in the life and structure of the Legion, so much so, to require a journey of profound re-evaluation. The serious and objectively immoral behavior of Fr. Maciel, supported by incontrovertible evidence, at times constitutes real crimes, and manifests a life devoid of scruples and of genuine religious feeling. The large majority of Legionaries were unaware of that life, particularly because of the system of relations created by Father Maciel, who had skillfully managed to build up an alibi, to gain the trust, confidence and surrounding silence and strengthen his role as a charismatic founder,” read one segment of the Holy See’s statement.
“At times, one could think that God has abandoned us. It seems like we are undergoing a long, very long Holy Saturday,” said Father Garza, in the recent published statement. “We are all waiting for the Resurrection, the moment when we can live our charism peacefully with the Church’s blessing, serving people and building the Church.”
Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.