The October 2001 edition of Deal Hudson's Crisis magazine features a cover story on “The Price of Priestly Pederasty.” The article focuses mostly on the financial impact of lawsuits and settlements, but it notes that good priests “have been tarnished by the unearthing of a sexual underworld among men of the cloth.”
To borrow a term from the war on terrorism, there is untold “collateral damage” in the priest-hood because of these violations of sacred trust.
It is a cross all Catholics bear — be they victims of the abuse, Catholics in the pew who wonder how in God's name such a thing could ever happen, bishops who must deal with the lawsuits and sometimes unfair accusations of cover-up, or innocent priests whose reputations are smeared by the sins of their brothers.
So what happens when a priest — a very good priest — is falsely accused of sexual misconduct? He is often presumed guilty until proven innocent. Even clear proof of innocence is not enough for some. Let me tell you about a case very near to my own heart.
In the fall of 1996, my congregation, the Legion of Christ, received word from a reporter that he was going to publish the story of 12 former Legionaries alleging that our founder, Father Marcial Maciel, had sexually abused them decades earlier. We were stunned, uncertain how to handle such outrageous — though, to those unaware of the facts, plausible — lies, but we hoped and prayed that, if we could share the truth in good faith with this reporter and his colleagues, all would be well.
Why would these elderly men attack Father Maciel? Who would conspire to allege sexual misconduct against an aging priest who started a fast-growing priestly congregation, the ecclesial movement Regnum Christi, hundreds of schools, 10 universities, and a host of other institutions and apostolates serving the Church?
A Time of Trial
This case goes back to the 1950s, when these accusers were young adult religious — Legionary seminarians. It was in this time period that all the abuse is alleged to have occurred. In 1956, Father Maciel faced an entirely different set of accusations suited to that day and age. Men who sought greater influence within the Legion accused him, among other things, of drug abuse, financial mismanagement and rebellion against the Holy See.
The charges were brought to the Vatican, which responded by conducting a thorough investigation of Father Maciel and the Legion. From 1956-58 Father Maciel was deprived of his functions as general director of the Legion and not allowed to enter the diocese of Rome. Vatican-appointed investigators lived with the Legionaries and interviewed each member personally. The investigators all reached the same conclusions: The allegations were trumped-up and baseless, and the Legion showed the potential to be of great service to the Church.
Decades later, a group of now elderly former Legionaries, Mexicans and Spaniards, sent their new accusations to the Vatican, which did not dignify them with a reply. So they took their story to an American newspaper. We asked the reporter, Gerald Renner of the Hartford Courant, to share with us the testimony of the 12 accusers. He and the Courant refused to show us the documents, but they did on occasion summarize details.
My order was faced with the difficulty of proving a negative. How do you prove that something, described in lurid detail, never happened? You would wish that the accusers would make some allegation that could be definitively disproved with documented scientific evidence. Then their utter lack of standing and credibility would be there, plain for the world to see.
Fortunately for the truth, they did just that. Twice.
First, some claimed that a former Legionary dictated a “death-bed confession” accusing Father Maciel of sexual abuse. Records show that, due to a stroke, he was unable to speak (there was no dictation) and died suddenly and unexpectedly from choking on his food (there was no deathbed).
Second, they all repeated the claim from the 1950s that Father Maciel was addicted to drugs. Precisely in order to prove or disprove such claims, a cardinal had at the time ordered blood tests on Father Maciel and separate examinations by three eminent physicians. They provided conclusive medical evidence eliminating any possibility of drug abuse.
There was more. One of the Vatican investigators went on to become bishop of Illapel, Chile. When in ‘96 he learned of these sex-abuse charges, Bishop Polidoro van Vlierberghe wrote to us explaining that he found them lacking all credibility, especially because during the one-on-one interviews in the ‘50s he “gave them every opportunity to level any accusation they had, but not once was this type of offense mentioned.”
With Father Maciel under suspicion at the time the abuse had allegedly just happened, not one single person, not even those who brought other false charges against him, accused him of sexual abuse.
Besides this, we were able to catch some of the accusers in their lies. One claimed to hold a position that never existed, and spoke of a seminary that never existed.
One of the accusers actually recanted and signed sworn testimony that he had been recruited to join in lies about Father Maciel in order “to show him up.” Four other men also testified they were recruited to join in the lies, but had refused to do so.
The writers, Gerald Renner and Jason Berry, knew these facts at the time they published their story. So did their editors at the Hartford Courant. They knew that the accusers were caught in their lies, that some had a decades-old animus against the man they were attacking, that five men (one of whom was an accuser who recanted) had testified that the accusations were a conspiracy of lies and that medical evidence proved that none of the accusers had any credibility.
How did they handle this information?
They simply edited out numerous accusations, changed others and dropped two of the accusers — all without letting their readers know — and went ahead and published the “story.”
The story alleging abuse by Father Maciel was not a stand-alone piece. It was quickly followed by one attacking Pope John Paul II and the Church as a whole for allegedly covering-up sexual abuse and turning a blind eye to the sexual realities of the day. Since then, the lies about Father Maciel get rehashed time and again with no acknowledgement of the numerous documented lies of the accusers, simply pinning the story on the latest “news hook” or using it to attack another member of the hierarchy. In short, it is a series of attacks on the Church and its teachings on sexual morality.
So this, too, is collateral damage of sexual abuse by priests.
Monstrously, sexual abuse attacks its immediate victim, violates his trust, and harms the faith of his family and community. But this sin doesn't stop with its immediate victims. Not only does such abuse put innocent bishops and priests under suspicion, but it also empowers those who disagree with the Church on matters of sexual morality to use whatever “evidence” they can — true or false — to disparage the Church, trying to force it to change.
The Hartford Courant story alleging abuse by Father Maciel was not a stand-alone piece. It was quickly followed by one attacking Pope John Paul II.
In the Christian spirit of Father Maciel, who has forgiven his accusers, I ask us all as followers of Christ to be charitable to our bishops and priests, to realize that sex scandals, horrible as they are, are the work of those few who have betrayed us, or of those who take advantage of the innocent.
Support and love your bishops and priests. Don't let their vocations — and the truth — become “collateral damage.”
Legionary Father Owen Kearns is the Register's publisher and editor-in-chief.