Pope has work cut out with Legion of Christ order

Pope Francis has to tackle the legacy of Rev Marcial Maciel, pictured. Picture: Getty
Pope Francis has to tackle the legacy of Rev Marcial Maciel, pictured. Picture: Getty
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First, one of the Legion of Christ’s senior leaders abruptly quit the troubled Catholic religious order in frustration over the slow pace of change. Then priests in the cult-like movement empowered proteges and associates of the order’s disgraced founder, the Reverend Marcial Maciel, to vote for their next leader.

The past month has seen some setbacks in the Legion’s efforts to rehabilitate itself as it moves toward electing a new leadership next month, the culmination of a three-year Vatican experiment aiming to overhaul a damaged order.

Yet even as the Legion prepares to present a new face, high-ranking members continue to speak nostalgically and even reverently of Maciel – a sexual predator who molested his seminarians, fathered three children and was, in the words of Vatican-appointed investigators, “devoid of scruples and ­authentic religious meaning”.

It all means that hopes are dwindling that the Vatican’s effort to radically reform the Legion has succeeded, raising the question of what Pope Francis will do with the once-powerful and wealthy order after the mandate of the papal envoy running it expires.

Pope Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, took over the Legion in 2010 and appointed a Vatican cardinal to govern it after investigators said the congregation needed to be “purified” of Maciel’s influence.

In reality, the Vatican knew of Maciel’s crimes for decades but turned a blind eye, impressed instead by his ability to bring millions of dollars and thousands of seminarians into to the church.

Rome’s failure to stop him marks the most egregious case of its indifference to victims of priestly sexual abuse, and has tarnished the legacy of Pope John Paul II, soon to be canonised, because he had held up the Legion as a model for the faithful.

Some progress has been made during the past three years of Vatican control. The order rewrote its constitutions, released statistics about sex abuse cases, and a well-respected priest recently begged forgiveness from Maciel’s victims for how he and the Legion ignored and defamed them. But if recent elections in the Legion’s lay branches are any indication, the membership itself has voted for the status quo.

That mindset has driven dozens of disillusioned priests and hundreds of seminarians and consecrated members out of the order. Today, the Legion will ordain 31 new priests, half as many as were ordained just three years ago.

Last month, the Legion’s pro-reform governing counsellor, the Reverend Deomar De Guedes, announced that he was not only resigning his position but was leaving the congregation altogether, a major blow coming just weeks before the 8 January assembly to approve the new constitutions and elect a new superior.

In his farewell letter, Rev De Guedes said he didn’t have the strength to carry on. But the ­Legion’s spokesman, the Reverend Benjamin Clariond, acknowledged that Rev De Guedes was often the “minority” in pressing for deeper and faster ­reform and that this was a source of “tension” for him.

“We grant that the reform has gone slowly up to now,” Rev Clariond said. “That is because we intend to effect changes that are not just cosmetic, but that address the underlying causes of the problems… As is understandable, this takes time.”

But with the mandate of the papal delegate, Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, ending after the assembly, key questions are being asked now that will pose a major test for the Pope. Has the Legion truly shed the cult-like practices that French bishops recently denounced in a letter to victims of spiritual abuse? Will Pope Francis approve the constitutions and essentially give the Legion a clean bill of health? Or will he make some provision for continued Vatican oversight after Cardinal De Paolis leaves?

The pope has already said the Legion’s assembly, or General Chapter, isn’t the end of the reform process but merely a “step”.

Yet the process itself seems questionable when even the ­Legion’s current leader continues to speak fondly of Maciel.

In a recent interview with a Spanish-language online journal, Vida Nueva, the Reverend Sylvester Heereman said that regardless of the bad things Maciel did, “he continues to be someone to whom I owe a lot, whom I remember with a mixture of gratitude and compassion, even though I understand and respect those who personally suffered and cannot share those feelings.”

The Reverend Thomas Berg, an American priest who left the Legion in 2009, said: “The continual resurgence in private and public of the story-line that ­Macial is a ‘flawed instrument,’ but an instrument of God no less, is proof in the pudding that the purification has not gone deep enough.”