Legion of Christ Seeks Forgiveness, Change with New Norms

Father Connor decried the failures brought under the community but expressed hope that reconciliation and healing will take place.

(photo: Legion of Christ)

ROME, Italy — Following the conclusion of the Legionaries of Christ’s general chapter, the religious order’s new leader has vowed to instill ideals for protection and transparency in the face of the sexual abuse crisis.

Father John Connor, the first U.S. leader of the order, announced Feb. 28 the release of two documents containing the reflections of the 2020 General Chapter in Rome, which included over 66 representatives from the order around the world.

“My councilors and I, together with the General Chapter gathered these days in Rome, have committed ourselves to face with courage, transparency and justice the consequences of sexual abuse that occurred in the history of our Congregation and that we published in the Report 1941-2019,” Connor said.

Father Connor was elected earlier this month following widespread public criticism of the Legionaries of Christ. A December 2019 report found that, since its establishment in 1941, 33 priests from the order have committed sexual abuse of minors, victimizing 175 children.

The Legionaries of Christ was founded by Mexican-born Fr. Marcial Maciel, who himself abused at least 60 minors. He is also accused of using the religious order to provide him access to the victims he abused, and to fund his mistresses, children he fathered, and an alleged drug habit.

The general chapter produced two documents, “Conversion and Reparation” and “Protect and Heal.” According to these documents, the order will investigate and determine the responsibility for each instance of past abuse.

In “Conversation and Reparation” the order asked for the forgiveness from the victims affected by the sexual abuse crisis and retracted negative criticism posed against 11 named-victims, who presented “legitimate and necessary accusations” against Father Maciel.

The document also encouraged its members to reflect on how to best comfort the victims of these scandals and correct these instances of abuse moving forward. According to the statement, the congregation seeks to instill a new attitude.

“In addition to confronting past cases of abuse and accountability, the Congregation seeks a change of mentality, a change of habits and a change of the institutional culture that allowed so much suffering to occur, and also to continue the effort of renewal based around the creation of safe environments together with the whole Church.”

“Protect and Heal” is a legislative document that strengthens the Safe Environment Policy issued after the 2014 General Chapter. It reinforces prevention measures, guarantees a rapid response to allegations or accusations of sexual abuse, and promises cooperation with ecclesial and civil authorities.

The document offers new provisions in its commitment to transparency and the means to handle abuser priests. It not only promises a swift response to accusations, but it also emphasizes steps to take toward any congregational members proven to have poorly handled these abuse cases. Members found guilty of negligence will be barred from holding office in the congregation.

“It establishes sanctions for those guilty of failing to report or of obstructing the proper handling of sexual abuse cases; it calls for, as standard procedure, petitioning the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith to impose the penalty of dismissal from the clerical state and expulsion from the Congregation.”

Father Connor decried the failures brought under the community but expressed hope that reconciliation and healing will take place.

“Up to now we have failed in caring for many of the victims of members of our Congregation, but we commit, as far as possible and respecting the privacy and willingness of each victim, to walk the road of reparation and reconciliation with each of them, with their families and with the affected communities. We know that it will take us many years,” he said.

“This is part of our mission and a sign of the authenticity of our vocation.”

Shortly after Father Connor was elected, the new leader received criticism about his negligence regarding past abuses. He was accused of mishandling abuse complaints surrounding Fr. Michael Sullivan, a Legion priest who reportedly acted inappropriately with women through touching and other interactions.

Gail Gore, a spokesperson for the Legion, told CNA Feb. 7 that Father Connor and the order handled the situation with the proper levels of communication, including sending an open letter about the situation to all members of the Legion in December. He said the accusations do not accurately represent the exchange.

For his part, Father Connor has indicated that more change is needed.

Father Connor has met with a variety of experts to analyze a holistic approach to enable the victims of sexual abuse a safe environment to seek “truth, justice, and reparation,” the order said.