Capping a decade-long on-again, off-again investigation of accusations of sexual abuse, the Vatican has asked Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, to observe a series of restrictions on his ministry.
In effect, Vatican sources told NCR this week, the action amounts to a finding that at least some of the accusations against the charismatic 86-year-old Mexican priest are well-founded.
Maciel has not been laicized, but the restrictions issued shortly before Easter by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith limit Maciel's public activity, such as his capacity to celebrate public Masses, to give lectures or other public presentations, and to give interviews for print or broadcast.
The restrictions have been approved by Pope Benedict XVI, and the Vatican is expected to issue a brief statement shortly.
Vatican sources stressed that the action against Maciel should not be read as an indictment of the Legionaries of Christ or its lay branch, Regnum Christi.
A spokesman for the Legionaries, asked to comment on the development, replied in an e-mail, "We have nothing to say. We don't know anything about this."
According to sources who spoke to NCR, the congregation's investigation was closed sometime toward the end of 2005. In the early months of 2006, the cardinal members of the congregation in Rome were invited to review the documentation. The decision to impose restrictions was then reached sometime before Easter.
Sources described the documentation collected by the congregation as involving the testimony of at least 20 accusers. The acts in question, according to these sources, reached into the 1980s.
One cardinal who serves on the congregation told NCR that, in his view, the material left little doubt as to the validity of the charges, though he said he was less clear how Maciel understood what he had done. Under canon law, intent and state of mind are sometimes taken into consideration in meting out punishment.
Within the Vatican, the Maciel case has long been seen as particularly sensitive, in part because it could tarnish the reputation of the late John Paul II, who warmly praised and repeatedly honored Maciel. The case could also call into question the action of Benedict XVI, who as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stopped the case against Maciel in 1999. However, he reactivated the case in 2004 and ultimately approved the disciplining of Maciel.
A senior Vatican official told NCR that the decisive break came only in late 2004, when a number of additional accusers came forward. Prior to that, he said, both John Paul and then-Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, were operating on the assumption that the charges were not justified.
Maciel becomes perhaps the highest-profile priest in the Catholic church to be disciplined for allegations of sexual abuse.
He has a distinguished Catholic lineage. Two of Maciel's great-uncles were Mexican bishops during the anti-clerical persecutions of the early 20th century. One, Bishop Rafael Guízar Valencia of Veracruz, was beatified by John Paul II in 1995, and a decree recognizing a miracle that clears his path to sainthood was signed by Benedict XVI April 28. Maciel's uncle, Jesús Degollado Guízar, was the last commander-in-chief of the Cristeros army that took up arms in defense of the church.
Founded by Maciel in 1941, the Legionaries of Christ has become one of the most influential and rapidly growing communities in the church. Today the order numbers some 650 priests and 2,500 seminarians worldwide. The lay branch of the Legionaries, Regnum Christi, reportedly has 50,000 members worldwide.
The case against Maciel has followed a circuitous path.
Rumors of various sorts have long dogged the Legionaries' founder. In 1956, he was deprived of his faculties to govern the Legionaries and sent into exile in Madrid while a canonical investigation was carried out. Charges at the time did not include sexual abuse but other matters such as excessive control over seminarians, theft and drug abuse. In 1959, the investigation cleared Maciel, and he was restored to his functions as superior general.
Maciel later referred to this period of trial as "the Great Blessing."
Complaints of sexual abuse first surfaced in the late 1990s, when nine former members of the Legionaries filed a canonical complaint against Maciel with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, alleging that they had been abused by Maciel as seminarians and young priests. Those acts, according to the accusers, dated to a period from 1943 to the early 1960s.
The Legionaries, and Maciel personally, strenuously denied the charges.
"Before God and with total clarity of conscience I can categorically state that the accusations brought against me are false," Maciel wrote in April 2002.
One of the original accusers later recanted; another died.
The accusations became public through 1997 articles in The Hartford (Conn.) Courant by Jason Berry and Gerald Renner and in the National Catholic Reporter, based on the Courant story. The two reporters filed another major piece on the case for NCR in December 2001, noting that canon lawyers in Mexico and the Vatican had found the accusations to be credible but that then-Cardinal Ratzinger had halted the investigation of the charges in 1999.
Berry and Renner co-authored the book Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II (Free Press), which is in part about the Maciel case.
According to Renner's and Berry's earlier reporting, the nine who originally brought accusations claimed that Maciel "first abused them when they were between the ages of 10 and 16, sometimes telling them he had permission from Pope Pius XII to engage in sexual acts with them in order to gain relief from pain related to an unspecified stomach ailment."
After the case was reopened in 2004, the congregation's promoter of justice, Maltese Msgr. Charles Scicluna, began to collect additional testimony. Sources told NCR that the eventual number of accusers who came forward against Maciel was "more than 20, but less than 100."
On Jan. 20, 2005, Maciel declined reelection as the superior of the Legionaries of Christ and was succeeded by Fr. Álvaro Corchera Martinez del Rio. Around the time of the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005, Scicluna traveled to Mexico to collect testimony from additional accusers. Later, Scicluna prepared a final dossier, which went before the cardinal members of the congregation and eventually Pope Benedict XVI.
Even for those convinced of Maciel's guilt, the outcome of the case was long in doubt because of his strong track record of papal support.
Maciel accompanied John Paul II on visits to Mexico in 1979, 1990 and 1993. During the 1993 trip, it was John Paul's public tribute to Maciel as an "efficacious guide to youth" that prompted the original nine accusers to come forward.
As late as 2002, when John Paul visited Mexico City, Maciel was in the front row at a papal Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and was greeted by the pope. In a 2004 letter, John Paul II congratulated Maciel for 60 years of "intense, generous and fruitful priestly ministry." The pope said he wanted to join in the "canticle of praise and thanksgiving" for the great things he had accomplished.
In a book-length 2003 interview with journalist Jesús Colina of the Zenit news agency published as Christ is My Life, Maciel described dining with John Paul in the Apostolic Palace on several occasions. John Paul also appointed Maciel as a delegate to three synods of bishops, as well as to the 1992 meeting of the Latin American bishops in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. In 1994, John Paul made Maciel a consultor to the Congregation for Clergy.
Vatican observers suggest that at the time John Paul II regarded the charges against Maciel as malicious, ascribing them largely to hostility to Maciel's doctrinal conservatism and his tenacious defense of the papacy.
The original accusers, however, earlier told NCR that they tried for many years to reach John Paul II with information about Maciel. Two of them said they sent letters in 1978 and again 1989, both by diplomatic pouch, but received no reply.
Other Vatican officials have also spoken positively of Maciel.
"Dear Father, I've seen the great work that you do," Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's Secretary of State, said to Maciel while embracing him during a November 2003 visit to Regina Apostolorum.
On May 20, 2005, the Secretariat of State under Sodano released a statement indicating there was no canonical case against Maciel, nor was one foreseen. It is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, however, that has responsibility for sex abuse cases, and the congregation continued its inquest.
Now-Cardinal Franc Rodé, a Slovenian and the Vatican's top official for religious orders, celebrated a Mass marking the conclusion of the Legionaries' General Chapter at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in January 2005, and used the occasion to praise Maciel.
Rodé called Maciel "the instrument chosen by God to carry out one of the great spiritual designs in the church of the 20th century."
Speaking on background, Vatican officials explained these comments in much the same way as they did John Paul's praise for Maciel. At the time, they argued, the evidence against Maciel was not yet complete, and looking at what these officials regarded as the positive works of the Legionaries and Regnum Christi, they assumed "by their fruits you shall know them."