Is the Legion of Christ reformed? What would reform even look like? A historic meeting in Rome that begins Jan. 8 hopes to provide some of those answers.
They are a long time coming. It has been five years since members of the Legion of Christ, founded in 1941, began privately admitting that their late founder, Father Marcial Maciel, had not been the saintly man they made him out to be: He had fathered children and was “probably” guilty of abusing seminarians.
I was executive editor of the Register (as well as a member of the Legion's closely associated lay movement Regnum Christi) when the news broke. I stopped attending Regnum Christi meetings immediately and told any Legionary who would listen that I was done with the movement.
Not many would listen.
The culture in the Legion of Christ made it very hard for Legionaries to simply admit that the founder was as bad as the facts showed him to be. Publicly, the Legion was only saying, “We can confirm that there are aspects of his life that weren’t appropriate for a Catholic priest,” and there was an effort to sum up what he had done as “misdeeds.”
The entrenched attitudes started to change a year later, when a March 2010 Vatican communiqué described Father Maciel as “devoid of scruples and of genuine religious sentiment.”
It’s hard to imagine a more devastating assessment of a religious founder. In the same document, the Vatican saw the need for big changes in the Legion:
a) “the need to redefine the charism” such that it is “not to be identified with the drive for efficiency at any cost”;
b) “the need to review the exercise of authority” in a way that would “respect consciences” and provide “authentic ecclesial service”; and
c) “the need to preserve the enthusiasm of the young people’s faith” such that they not “call into question their vocation.”
In the summer of 2010, Pope Benedict XVI put into place a plan of reform. He appointed Archbishop (now Cardinal) Velasio de Paolis to be the congregation’s de facto superior. His job was to separate the lay and priestly branches and prepare for a general assembly for Regnum Christi members and the general chapter for the 963 Legion priests.
The moment for those meetings has now arrived.
But all along, onlookers tried to read between the lines to see what Pope Benedict was up to. One theory: He had decided to kill the Legion slowly by a thousand cuts rather than immediately by a sudden blow. Some former Legionaries think that was his plan. Benedict was giving seminarians time to adjust, they say — a time to mentally take leave of the Legion and be ready to move on.
Another theory is that Benedict is a modern-day Gamaliel. He’s the Pharisee in Acts who intervened in the Sanhedrin for the Christians, saying, “If this endeavor is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them.”
This is the opinion that prevails in the Legion, I think.
A Legionary told me there are three groups within the Legion: the newcomers who hardly knew Father Maciel; the old-timers who remain devoted to him; and a middle group. Legionary Vicar General Father Sylvester Heereman, in a video that was briefly available online, spoke of that middle swath of Legionaries as optimistic and full of promise.
The general chapter is an opportunity for real change: It will determine a new set of leaders and rewrite the constitutions that are the way of life of the Legion.
But from what I understand, the new constitutions Legionaries will finish at the general chapter will probably not leave anyone fully satisfied. They won’t satisfy the old guard, who would limit changes dramatically, nor will they satisfy those longing for robust reform. The chapter’s final draft will be sent to Pope Francis, who will look over the constitutions and say either, “Okay, now try them out” or “Rewrite them” or “Never mind — I’ll rewrite them.”
Or — he might do something else.
Pope Francis is the giant question mark in the center of any discussion of the future of the Legion. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio had only a tenuous, tense relationship with the Legion, one priest told me. The Legion often tried to include him in fundraising dinners or events. He would refuse, saying, “Invite the poor. Don’t just invite the rich.”
A Legionary pointed out that Francis is working with an inherited process and that he hasn’t made his personal mark on the Legion issue. Whatever he says is probably going to be a surprise — but it could be many months before that surprise comes.
In the meantime, Legion watchers will be watching carefully:
When Francis gets the new constitutions, will he take a personal interest or will he pass them over to the Vatican congregation for religious?
Will Francis grant the Legionaries a papal photo op? They will certainly push hard for one.
Will Francis appoint another caretaker now that the term of Cardinal de Paolis is ending?
And what about Father Maciel? All of my sources agreed that the Legion will continue to be judged on how it deals with — or avoids addressing — the question of its disgraced founder.
Currently, the new constitutions don’t even mention Father Maciel, perhaps due to a recommendation of Cardinal de Paolis to bracket the founder in order to be discussed later, after the way of life is ironed out first.
But the founder and the congregation are hard to separate. Back in “the old days,” the Legion taught me that our mission was an extension of Father Maciel’s work. He was almost exclusively called Nuestro Padre (Our Father), and members were encouraged to say a prayer that claimed “the Legion and the movement [Regnum Christi] will be vigorous and will flourish as long as the spirit of our founder is present and active in our lives and behavior.”
I wanted to see where the Legion stood now with regard to Father Maciel. I know they have moved well beyond the “inappropriate behavior” phase of their response. But how forthcoming were they?
I contacted the Legion to ask: Where is the full extent of Father Maciel’s bad behavior delineated? What about the children in Mexico claiming he fathered them and then abused them? When those revelations came to light, we heard that “the Legion cannot offer a declaration about this issue for now.” How about now?
The response I received offered little information about the extent of Father Maciel’s abuse, and it came a week after deadline, after long silence and much coaxing. It reminded me of the old days.
I’m not the only one having déjà vu.
After Legionaries said a Mass over the tomb of Father Maciel last August, Legionary Father Peter Byrne wrote a letter telling fellow would-be reformers that he no longer had hope for significant change.
“The cover-up has been so complete,” said Father Byrne’s letter, “that now the Legion faces into its general chapter with the possibility that those very people who for years surrounded Maciel, did his every illicit bidding and defended him against any accusation are eligible to be the new superiors of the congregation.”
I confirmed the authenticity of the letter and asked the U.S. Legion press office about it and its specific charges, and I received no response. I also asked them about the frustrated departure from the Legion of high-ranking Father Deomar de Guedes on the eve of the general chapter. Again, no response.
Another reminder of the Legion’s old ways was Thomas Williams’ recent marriage. As a priest, Williams was dean of theology at the Legion’s Pontifical Athenaeum in Rome, Regina Apostolorum, when Legionary superiors learned that he had fathered a child. The congregation allowed him to continue in his official Church role for years, covering up his personal circumstances.
One positive sign of transparency was the recent report from the Legion admitting to other abusers in its ranks. A Dec. 5 Legion statement said a study showed that 35 Legionary priests had been accused of sexual abuse of minors. Of these, nine were found guilty, 10 are still under review, and 14 were acquitted. Six Legionary superiors have been accused; three were found guilty.
I sent follow-up questions to the Legion: When did abuse by those priests occur? How many victims have come forward? How many priests were in the Legion at that time? What abuse by religious was discovered? How about laypeople? Has an exhaustive investigation of Father Maciel’s abuse been done?
Again, a late, unresponsive response didn’t answer my questions.
And so I am left feeling like I have for decades about the Legion. The congregation Father Maciel founded has always been full of intoxicating promise and maddening frustration. We will see which prevails in Rome.
Tom Hoopes was executive editor of the National Catholic Register from 1999-2009