Mexico City -- During Pope John Paul II's final days, the cardinal who would replace him, Joseph Ratzinger, reopened a Vatican investigation into longstanding allegations that the Mexican founder of an influential Catholic order had molested teenage students under his tutelage. Cardinal Ratzinger, who was elected Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday, made the decision in early December to open a full-scale inquiry into accusations that the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the 85-year-old founder of the Legionaries of Christ, had sexually abused at least eight young students between 1943 and the early 1960's.
The decision came just days after Pope John Paul II publicly praised Father Maciel and awarded his organization control over an important Catholic center in Jerusalem.
Yet as Pope John Paul II lay on his deathbed in late March, a Vatican investigator, Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, traveled to Mexico to interview more than 20 people, among them several men who maintain that Father Maciel sodomized them when they were boys, according to two people interviewed.
"It is better late than never," said José Barba Martín, a history professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico and the leader of the group of men who have contended they were sexually abused. "This is a good sign."
The decision to reopen the investigation represented an about-face for the cardinal who was soon to become pope. Cardinal Ratzinger shelved the inquiry in December 1999, and as late as November 2002 he had rejected the pleas for action from Mr. Barba and others who allege they were abused, people familiar with the case said.
It remains unclear why Cardinal Ratzinger changed his mind and reopened the investigation. He has never commented on the matter. Among those who have raised the complaints and others who are closely following the case, one theory suggests that he knew he would be a candidate for pope and did not want the matter hanging over his head when the conclave was held. Another suggests that Cardinal Ratzinger did not want Pope John Paul II's reputation to be tarnished by allegations that the pope had done nothing to pursue charges against a friend. It is also possible that Cardinal Ratzinger received new information.
"Why that happened is anybody's guess," said Gerald Renner, a freelance journalist who with Jason Berry last year published a book, "Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II," about the accusations against Father Maciel. "Of all the cardinals who could have been chosen pope, he certainly knows more about this case than anyone."
Monsignor Scicluna, the Maltese investigator who holds the title of the promoter of justice within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, declined on Thursday to comment about the investigation.
Jay Dunlap, a spokesman for Father Maciel and the Legion, dismissed the accusations as lies and asked why the men had not brought up the allegations in the 1950's, when Father Maciel was investigated for alleged drug abuse and later exonerated. "The idea that there were all these victims and nobody said anything to these investigators is beyond belief," he said. "The Legion is entirely confident that any full investigation will only serve to exonerate Father Maciel."
Over the years, the allegations against Father Maciel have been the subject of newspaper articles in The Hartford Courant and The National Catholic Reporter, as well as an ABC television report and several books. The accusers sent letters to the pope by diplomatic pouch in 1978 and 1989, but got no reply, according to Mr. Renner and Mr. Berry, who first wrote about the accusations in The Courant in 1997.
This led Mr. Barba to make an accusation that the inquiry had been squashed because Cardinal Ratzinger knew it would displease the pope.
Mr. Barba and seven other former members of the Rome-based Legion, most of them Mexicans, first lodged a formal complaint with the Vatican in 1998, maintaining that Father Maciel had sexually abused them when they were students ages 10 to 16. Some said Father Maciel, a charismatic man who was highly successful at fund-raising, contended that he had permission from Pope Pius XII to engage in sex acts in order to relieve stomach pain.
Because the allegations were too old to be investigated under criminal law, the group brought a suit against Father Maciel under the Vatican's canonical law. They said they had been motivated to take action after decades of silence because Pope John Paul II had praised Father Maciel as "an efficacious guide to youth" during a 1994 trip to Mexico.
There was no sign of action from the Vatican. In 1999, a Mexican bishop, Carlos Talavera, traveled to Rome and personally handed Cardinal Ratzinger a letter outlining the charges against Father Maciel. The letter had been written by another Mexican priest, Alberto Athié Gallo. In 1995, Father Athié said, he heard the deathbed confession of the Rev. Juan Manuel Fernández Amenabar, a university president who said he had been sexually abused.
Bishop Talavera later told Father Athié that the future pope had read the letter in his presence. According to Father Athié, Cardinal Ratzinger had then said the matter was delicate and it would not be prudent to open an inquiry into Father Maciel's past.
"Cardinal Ratzinger said that, lamentably, the case of Father Maciel could not be opened because he was a person very loved by the pope and had done so much good for the church," Father Athié said in an interview. "This is what Bishop Talavera told me."
Neither Bishop Talavera nor Cardinal Ratzinger has ever confirmed that the conversation took place. Bishop Talavera did not return messages left by a reporter on Thursday and Friday.
Shortly after Cardinal Ratzinger rejected Father Athié's letter, in December 1999, the Vatican informed Martha Wegan, a canonical lawyer representing the group, that the inquiry had been suspended indefinitely, Mr. Barba said.
Mr. Barba and another complainant, Arturo Jurado Guzmán, tried again in November 2002 to reach Pope John Paul II. They presented a letter in Polish to a Vatican official, the Rev. Gianfranco Girotte, asking that it be sent to the pope's personal secretary, Msgr. Stanislas Dziwisz. Father Girotte informed them he would give their letter instead to Cardinal Ratzinger. Again, there was silence from the Vatican, Mr. Barba and Father Athié said.
Late last year, as the pope's health was failing, the Legion was planning a series of ceremonies to pay homage to their founder's 60th anniversary as a priest. Neither Cardinal Ratzinger nor Monsignor Dziwisz attended the main event, held Nov. 26 at the church of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls in Rome.
A few days later, on Dec. 2, Ms. Wegan received a message from Cardinal Ratzinger's office asking whether the men who had alleged abuse still wished to give testimony to investigators, Mr. Barba said.
Since Father Maciel founded the Legion here with a handful of students in 1941, it has grown at a furious pace. The order currently has about 500 priests and 2,500 seminarians in some 20 countries, including Spain and the United States. It has a budget of about $60 million.
As news of the investigation rippled through the church, Father Maciel, who lives in Rome, declined to be elected again as general director of the Legion on Jan. 20 at the order's annual meeting. He handed over the reins to a younger priest, the Rev. Álvaro Corcuera.
Mr. Dunlap, the order's spokesman, said Father Maciel's decision had nothing to do with the investigation, as some critics have suggested. He questioned the credibility of the men who have brought the charges, who include two university professors, a lawyer, an engineer, a retired priest, a private rancher, a schoolteacher, and a former language instructor for the United States Defense Department. Mr. Dunlap said none of them raised the issue of sexual abuse during the 1956 inquiry.