Vatican Knew About Legionary Founder Maciel’s Abuse From 1943

The head of the Vatican’s dicastery for religious life blames ‘a mafia’ for the cover-up, adding those responsible ‘were not the Church.’

Cardinal João Bráz de Aviz leaving the Synod on Youth, Oct. 17, 2018.
Cardinal João Bráz de Aviz leaving the Synod on Youth, Oct. 17, 2018. (photo: Edward Pentin photo)

Cardinal João Bráz de Aviz, the prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, has disclosed that the Vatican had documents on the abusive conduct of the disgraced founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel, from as long ago as 1943. 

The Brazilian cardinal said “those who covered it up were a mafia, they were not the Church,” according to the Spanish Catholic online magazine Vida Nueva.

Cardinal Bráz de Aviz did not give any more details about the documents, which he mentioned in a talk he gave at a Madrid conference late last year, but said the Legionaries currently have “nothing to do” with such a coverup and now follow “a very good process.” 

According to a 2006 article in the Spanish newspaper El Pais, Rome investigated Father Maciel for suspected pedophilia between 1956 and 1959 on the instructions of Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani — 13 years after the first reports referred to by Cardinal Braz de Aviz.

During those four years, Father Maciel was suspended as superior general of the Legion and expelled from Rome, but the investigation yielded no results and he soon returned to his old ways but with more power.

Father Maciel, who died in 2008, founded the Legionaries of Christ in 1941 but an apostolic visitation of the order was undertaken in 2009 after it emerged he had led a double life of having fathered three children with two mistresses, sexually abused minors, seminarians and even his own children, and embezzled funds. Some of the allegations dated back to the 1940s. 

The Mexican-born priest had managed to continue his abuse unchecked in large part because of an institutional and cultish reverence for the Legion’s superiors that he himself had fostered.

Father Maciel was often feted by the Vatican, including meetings with Pope St. John Paul II (who knew “absolutely nothing” of Maciel's abuse, according to Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz), until Benedict XVI removed him from active ministry in 2006. 

The Legionaries of Christ, and its lay movement Regnum Christi, have since been restructured with revised constitutions, most notably dispensing with a vow that forbade criticism of superiors. In November, the Vatican approved Regnum Christi's consecrated women and lay consecrated men as societies of apostolic life of pontifical rite (the whole of Regnum Christi is still in the process of being approved as a federation).


Immediate Response

In his recent interview, Cardinal Bráz de Aviz insisted the Church must immediately respond to abuse allegations. “We must be attentive to the victims and not the perpetrators, this is what the Pope asks of us,” the Brazilian cardinal said. “The pain of those who suffer from these abuses is enormous and we cannot let it go. We cannot cover it up.”

Speaking generally about the abuse crisis, the cardinal said: “I have the impression that allegations of abuse will grow, because we are only at the beginning. We've been covering up for 70 years, and this has been a huge mistake.”

He predicted “a small Church,” but also a “more correct” one, might be the consequence of this “difficult time” for the Church. He also said the current crisis “shows that many things in the past were wrong.” He spoke against the lies of the past, and said that “to my generation, no one spoke to us about sexuality.” This issue, he said, needs to be re-examined in formation. 

Cardinal Bráz de Aviz’s comments come as the Vatican prepares a major summit of bishops on the “protection of minors and vulnerable adults” against clergy sexual abuse, to be held at the Vatican, Feb. 21-24.  

This article has been amended. A priest Register reader has kindly pointed out that most of the documents the cardinal refers to are in the archives of the Congregation for Religious and have been published in a book and a web site (in Spanish):

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