Roma -- Last April 2, just as John Paul II was dying in Rome, in New York the promoter of justice for the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Charles J. Scicluna, from Malta, was interviewing Paul Lennon, the former headmaster of a "School of Faith" run by the Legionaries of Christ.
Mr. Lennon, who is Irish, is now a psychotherapist in Alexandria, Virginia, and a witness against one of the most revered and powerful men of the Catholic Church worldwide: Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, 85, from Mexico, the founder of the Legionaries and the apple of pope Karol Wojtyla's eye.
With 650 priests, 2,500 students of theology, 1,000 consecrated laypeople, 30,000 active members in twenty nations, and dozens of high-level schools and universities - two of which are in Rome; one of pontifical right, inaugurated in 2002, the Regina Apostolorum; and another which has just been recognized by the Italian government, the European University of Rome - the Legionaries of Christ are a staggering success story.
Last November 30, John Paul II publicly embraced their founder, Maciel, and congratulated him on his 60th anniversary of priestly ordination, in the jubilant atmosphere of a Vatican audience hall filled to bursting with thousands of Legionaries and militants of Regnum Christi, the order's parallel lay association.
Four days earlier, on the 26th, pope Wojtyla had given over to the "care and management" of the Legionaries nothing less than the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem, a substantial meeting place and center of hospitality owned by the Holy See and located just a few steps away from the Holy Sepulchre.
But meanwhile, in another Vatican building, that of the former Holy Office, the then cardinal prefect Joseph Ratzinger had just told Scicluna, his promoter of justice, to pull from the congregation's shelves all of the trials still on the waiting list and in danger of never being processed. The order was: "Every case must take its proper course."
Among the folders was one six years old and marked, in Latin: "Absolutionis complicis. Arturo Jurado et alii - Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado." The first phrase describes the charge, the second gives the name of the first of the accusers, and the third is the name of the accused. The alleged crime, the absolution of an accomplice in confession, is one of the most terrible for the Church, so much so that it has no statute of limitations.
A few days later, on December 2, Martha Wegan, an Austrian living in Rome and working as a lawyer for the Holy See in the canonical forum, sent a letter asking Arturo Jurado, José Barba Martin, and Juan Vaca, three of Fr. Maciel's eight accusers, if they intended to confirm their request for a canonical investigation. They had submitted the request to the Vatican on October 17, 1998, delivering it by hand to the undersecretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the time, Gianfranco Girotti.
The three responded in the affirmative. Wegan communicated their reply to the promoter of justice, Scicluna. He opened the preliminary investigation on the denunciations in his possession: years and years of sexual abuse committed by Fr. Maciel against his accusers, all of them former Legionaries, when they were young and under his guidance at the seminary in Rome. The charge was made heavier by the accusation that he had then absolved them in confession.
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The denunciations of the eight men appeared for the first time on February 23, 1997, in the Connecticut newspaper "The Hartford Courant," in an article by Jason Berry and Gerald Renner. At the time, the firestorm of reports in the United States of sexual abuse committed by priests on children and young people had still not broken out. But this was the forewarning.
What was striking, apart from the gravity of the accusations, was the personalities of the accusers: professionals, lawyers, accomplished university professors. Some of them had held high offices in Fr. Maciel's organization.
One of them, Félix Alarcón, had opened the Legionaries' first outpost in the United States. Another, Vaca, had been president of the Legionaries in the U.S. from 1971 to 1976. In 1978 and again in 1989, he had sent two private declarations to John Paul II, accusing Maciel of having abused him when he was a teenager.
In both cases, he received no reply. Partly for this reason, he and the other seven finally decided to make all of it public, and to submit their denunciation to the Vatican in 1998.
As a target of these defaming accusations, Fr. Maciel has always defended himself by denying them outright. But he has also counterattacked.
Against his accusers, he brings up the fact that at the beginning there was a ninth accuser together with the other eight, Miguel Diaz Rivera, a former Legionary who is now a professor in Oaxaca. He later retracted his accusation and stated that the others had induced him to make false charges.
Three other former Legionaries - Armando Arias Sanchez, Valente Velázquez, and Jorge Luis González Limón - are said to be ready to testify that they underwent pressure to maintain untrue accusations.
But the main argument that Fr. Maciel enlists is the result of a previous Vatican investigation against him, from which he emerged unscathed.
It was 1956, and eighteen accusations had been lodged against Maciel, including that of drug addiction. The Holy Office dismissed him from all of his duties, sent him away from Rome, and interviewed his followers one by one.
Among these were also the men who 42 years later would accuse Maciel of sexual abuse committed against them during that same period of the 1950's. But they said nothing of it then.
The investigation lasted until February of 1959, and ended with the absolution of the accused and his restoration to his duties. The Legionaries of Christ now exhibit two letters of full support for Fr. Maciel written by one of the inspectors at the time, Chilean bishop Cirilo Polidoro van Vlierberghe, now 96 years old.
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In reality, not all the leaders of the Legion have always agreed about how to face the new trial that has been looming over Maciel since 1998. Some of them say that its failure to request the immediate processing of the trial has harmed the Legion rather than helped it. In the face of verbal accusations dealing with events that took place long ago, with no objective confirmation, and issued by a group of former members who are in their turn accused of "attacking Fr. Maciel in order to attack the Church and the pope," a verdict of absolution would have been certain.
But today this certainty is not as solid as it once was. Last January 23, at the chapter that meets every twelve years to nominate the director general of the Legionaries of Christ, the election did not go to Fr. Maciel, as it always had before, but to a much younger man, Álvaro Corcuera Martínez del Rio, 47, from Mexico. The general staff of the Legionaries denies that this event was connected with the trial. But the fact remains that since the trial was put into motion through Ratzinger's initiative, Maciel has no longer held any official post in the Legion he founded.
And the sequence of recent events seems to have turned against him. On March 25, Good Friday, in the meditations for the Stations of the Cross at the Coliseum, Ratzinger lamented "how much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to [Christ]" and offered a glimpse of an energetic re-purification. During those same days, his promoter of justice, Scicluna, was leaving for America to investigate the accusations against Maciel. He arrived in New York on April 2, and interviewed not only Vaca, one of the eight who issued the canonical denunciation, but also another important former Legionary, Lennon, who confirmed the accusations of the former with his own testimony relating to more recent years. On the 4th Scicluna arrived in Mexico City, where he continued his interviews until April 10. He spent a total of twelve hours listening to the two formal issuers of the canonical denunciation, Jurado and Barba Martin. He also interviewed the rest of the eight, except for Fernando Pérez Olvera, who sent him a written account.
But above all, he interviewed many new witnesses from Mexico, the United States, Ireland, and Spain, some of whom had been Legionaries until just a few years ago. They all added new accusations to the investigation, not only against Maciel, but also against younger leaders in the Legion, always for the same "filth."
With Scicluna was a priest taking dictation. He kept a written transcript of each testimony, and at the end had this checked and approved by the witness. When the two returned to the Vatican in mid-April, they had on their agenda the names of twenty former Legionaries in Spain and Ireland who had asked to be interviewed. Scicluna might soon visit these two countries. In any case, he will as promoter of justice prepare a report with his concluding proposals at the end of his preliminary investigation. The Vatican authorities will decide on the basis of this whether or not to begin a real and proper canonical trial.
If it were up to cardinal secretary of state Angelo Sodano, a great protector of Maciel and the Legionaries of Christ, this trial would never take place. But Ratzinger has been elected pope, and he will have the last word.
Benedict XVI has elected as the new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith the archbishop of San Francisco, William J. Levada, one of the four bishops in the United States responsible for the effort against sexual abuse committed by priests.
Two days before the conclave, on April 16, Ratzinger met Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, a great proponent of his election and an even more decisive supporter of a rigorous approach to purifying the Church of this scourge. Ratzinger assured him of his support.
As George was kissing the newly elected pope's ring, Benedict XVI told him he would keep that promise.