Vatican City -- The Legionaries of Christ, who have their U.S. headquarters in Connecticut, have elected a successor to the Mexican priest who has headed the religious order since its founding 64 years ago.
The decision of 84-year-old Father Marcial Maciel Degollado to decline re-election had no connection to recent reports that the Vatican has reopened an investigation into allegations that the Mexican sexually abused seminarians, a spokesman for the order said Monday.
Maciel and the order have vigorously denied the allegations, accusing the nine men of a conspiracy to defame him.
Maciel cited his age and his wish to be present during a transition under the new general director, fellow Mexican the Rev. Alvaro Corcuera Martinez del Rio, 47, the spokesman said.
"He had been planning this for at least three years," said the spokesman, the Rev. Tom Williams.
But David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he believed Maciel's departure was related to the reopening of the investigation.
"It's a sign that when victims persist, sometimes they can achieve some measure of justice," Clohessy said. "I hope it will produce some comfort to the people he molested. I hope it won't short circuit the investigation."
The order's general chapter meets every 12 years. The election was held Thursday in Rome, with the announcement of the leadership change made Sunday.
Corcuera has been rector of the Legionaries' international seminary in Rome. Its U.S. headquarters is in Orange, Conn. and it has a seminary in Cheshire, Conn.
Maciel founded the order when he was 20, in 1941. It claims a membership of 65,000 people, including some 600 priests in 18 countries.
The Vatican reportedly investigated the accusations in the 1950s, brought by nine former members of the Legion who said Maciel abused them when they were young boys or teenagers in seminaries in Spain and Italy. The order says the Vatican cleared him of any wrongdoing.
In November, Pope John Paul II praised Maciel on the 60th anniversary of his priestly ordination, citing his "intense, generous and fruitful priestly ministry."