The Legion of Christ and the Need for Universal Indignation

COMMENTARY: Perhaps those who have long thought the Legionaries of Christ needs to be disbanded have been right all along, but the cleanup can’t stop there.

A man cleans the floor at St. Peter's Basilica at dawn. [Photo Illustration]
A man cleans the floor at St. Peter's Basilica at dawn. [Photo Illustration] (photo: Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The Legionaries of Christ in late December made public a report of an internal investigation they did into the incidence of sexual abuse of minors in the order since its founding in 1941.

The results are very distressing: the report disclosed that the sexual abuse committed by its founder Father Marcial Maciel (who reportedly abused at least 60 victims, among them his own children), was not isolated to him alone. It identified 175 victims abused by 30 priests.  On Jan. 20, a new story emerged of unbelievably horrific abuse of very young girls in Mexico, whom a Legionary priest abused in a chapel in front of other young girls. The higher-ups of the Legion, and even Cardinal de Paolis, who was delegated in 2010 to reform the Legion, covered up the abuse. More stories are emerging, such as a recent one about two priests who abused minor boys at a seminary in Mexico.

These reports have sparked another round of demands that the congregation be disbanded.

I was a great fan of the Legion initially. My prompting led several young men to join into the Legion,  They were drawn to the order because of its purported vibrant orthodoxy, evangelical zeal, masculine ways and joyfulness — elements they weren’t finding in diocesan seminaries and other orders. Those extraordinarily fine men are still priests in the congregation.

My respect for the Legion quickly waned. Early on I was persuaded of the malignity of Father Maciel when nine men who as boys had been abused by him came forward with credible accusations. As I became more familiar with the Legion, the cultish atmosphere around Father Maciel and the “cookie cutter” appearance and somewhat robotic behavior of the seminarians and priests made me uneasy.

When the terrible truth about Maciel was acknowledged, many insisted that the order needed to be disbanded. They argued that orders need a charism given by the founder, and since the Legion’s founder has been thoroughly discredited, the Legion has no charism and no reason for existence. I resisted the calls for disbanding the Legion because I trusted the decision of the Vatican that the order could be reformed and that the good priests could rally around the vision to which they had committed themselves. (I was in a more trusting mode toward the Vatican then, than I am now.)

I am starting to reevaluate my hope that the Legion can be reformed. While I commend the Legion for undertaking an investigation, the findings have shaken me. I thought the corruption was isolated to Father Maciel himself and that it did not permeate the order. It’s possible that several of those at the very top didn’t have any suspicions of his double life and evil ways as they claimed, but that rang hollow to me and if it was true it itself was a sign of a sick system. I fear a fuller investigation could reveal a subculture of homosexuality among some priests and seminarians. And, of course, there is the persistent suspicion that the Legion is too focused on currying favor with wealthy Catholics. 

Furthermore, there are disturbing signs that the Legion has not reformed or even embarked upon a sensible program of reform. That may be, among other reasons, because the process devised for reform is itself corrupt and that the Legion is not capable of the needed transparency. At a Legion event when the “reformation” was in its early stages, I asked a Legionary priest why the members weren’t objecting to a statement by Cardinal de Paolis that he was not going to attempt to discover who knew what, when, because he didn’t believe members of the order would cooperate. I was dumbfounded when a Legionary priest told me he doubted that Cardinal de Paolis really said that — that the media had made it up and besides that, he trusted the papal delegate. It became painfully clear to me that those formed by the Legion could not shake off their formation in emasculating obedience and servile trust. 

It also honestly disgusts me that the Legionary websites make nary a mention of Father Maciel and his evil deeds. If, after 11 years, the current leaders do not realize that they need to acknowledge who Maciel really was, will they ever be able to do so?  Finally, it is unbelievable that some of those who were in positions of power when Maciel reigned are still in power.

Perhaps those who have long thought the Legionaries of Christ needs to be disbanded have been right all along.

Still, I have to wonder if the Legion is being held to a higher standard than other orders and institutions of the Church. It is almost certain that some other orders and some dioceses, as well, have histories of sexual and financial corruption that rivals or surpasses that of the Legion and have made less progress in purging their corrupt culture. The corruption in the Jesuits, for instance, has long been a matter of public knowledge.  Indeed, many orders are being plagued by claims against them, e.g., those in New York State.  A branch of the order of Franciscans has faced bankruptcy. A recent in-depth report of the corruption engaged in by Bishop Daniel Ryan of Springfield, Illinois, along with the corruption he permitted, is as shocking as anything I have read. One predator priest, Fr. Campbell, allowed to remain in ministry abused hundreds of minors here and abroad.  And, moreover, Bishop Ryan’s behavior was reported by Stephen Brady of Roman Catholic Faithful to Cardinal Francis George, to the nuncio and even to Pope St. John Paul II, and nothing was done.

If the Legion must disband because of a corrupt culture, cover-up, and retention of bad leaders, shouldn’t other orders be disbanded as well, and dioceses thoroughly reconstituted? Is the Legion really such a special case? Yes, their founder was horrifically corrupt, but do other orders get a pass because they have a saintly founder? Do dioceses get a pass because they are structured differently?  Maybe it makes some sense to start by disbanding the Legion, but the cleanup can’t stop there.

In my view, every order, every diocese, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vatican should undergo a historical audit of corruption of all kinds and do as transparent of an accounting as possible. 

The investigations should be funded by lay organizations that hire investigators who have no loyalty ties to the hierarchy or priests of the diocese or to the orders being investigated and who report to a review board made up of faithful Catholics from beyond the diocese. Can trust ever be fully restored without such?

If we aren’t calling for a radical housecleaning of every order, diocese and bishops’ conference worldwide, including the Vatican, demanding such of the Legion smacks of selective indignation.

I call for universal indignation. Groups of respected laity should approach their bishop and demand that such a historical audit be done. Bishops who want to restore trust to the Church so that the Church can become the Immaculate Bride and pillar of integrity that Jesus wants for his Church should embrace (and perhaps invite) this initiative.

Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., is a retired professor of moral theology who speaks and writes on life issues and the corruption in the Church