A conservative Catholic lay movement with close ties to Pope John Paul II will bring thousands of its members from North America to Baltimore this weekend for a three-day conference.
The Youth and Family Encounter 2002 at the Baltimore Convention Center is expected to attract more than 5,000 members of the Legion of Christ, a movement founded in the 1940s by a Mexican priest, the Rev. Marcial Maciel.
The Legion includes a lay movement, Regnum Christi, which has more than 60,000 members worldwide, and a religious order of priests, the Legionaries of Christ, which has more than 500 priests, about 60 in this country. The Legion of Christ is associated with Woodmont Academy, a Catholic elementary school in Woodstock.
Movements like the Legion of Christ and Opus Dei, while criticized by liberal Catholics for their insistence on strict orthodoxy, have been frequently praised by Pope John Paul, who sees them as a vanguard in attempts to renew the church.
The conference features appearances by former U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett, who spoke last night, and a Mass scheduled for this morning by Cardinal William H. Keeler.
Keeler's appearance has prompted appeals by two groups, one representing victims of clergy sexual abuse and the other made up of former Legion members, urging him to withdraw from the Mass because of sexual abuse allegations against the founder of the Legion of Christ. Nine former members of the Legion claimed years ago that Maciel sexually abused them in the order's seminaries in Italy and Spain during the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
"In light of these horrific abuses and in the spirit of the Dallas charter, we urgently call upon you to withdraw from participation in this weekend's events," said a statement by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) that was sent to Keeler yesterday.
Earlier this week, members of Religious Groups Awareness International Network , an organization of former members of the Legion , approache d Keeler with a similar request.
Jay Dunlap, a spokesman for the Connecticut-based Legion of Christ, said Maciel was thoroughly investigated by the Vatican in the 1950s when allegations of drug abuse and misuse of the organization's funds were made and those accusations were judged to be totally unfounded. At that time, allegations of sexual abuse were never raised.
"All the evidence points to the fact that this never happened and is a sad attempt to discredit Father Maciel," Dunlap said.
Keeler, responding to SNAP's request, said through a spokesman that he had no choice but to fulfill his obligation to the group.
"In saying Mass tomorrow, Cardinal Keeler is responding to the spiritual needs of the individuals and families who traveled to our Archdiocese to celebrate our faith," spokesman Stephen Kearney said in a written statement. "In no way should his presence convey an endorsement of Father Maciel - who is not here - or the order. When people gather in the Lord's name in Baltimore, the Cardinal looks to minister to their spiritual needs."