The Legionaries of Christ will not be closed down but face a "path of purification" says the Vatican in the wake of a detailed report.
Revelations that the order's Mexican founder, Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado, was a serial paedophile who secretly fathered children, have shattered the Legionaries and raised questions about whether the order can or should be allowed to continue.
The answer is "yes" -- but it faces a root-and-branch reform under a new head appointed by the Pope, according to a Vatican statement put out after a two-day meeting between the Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, and the five bishops appointed to carry out a thorough investigation of the order. The "Visitation" involved interviews with more than 1,000 Legionaries and hundreds of written testimonies.
The stern statement begins by acknowledging that "the behavior of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado has had serious consequences for the life and structure of the Legion, such as to require a process of in-depth revision". But Legionaries did not know of this behavior, it says, because Maciel was "untouchable":
The very serious and objectively immoral behavior of Father Maciel, as incontrovertible evidence has confirmed, sometimes resulted in actual crimes, and manifests a life devoid of scruples and of genuine religious sentiment. The great majority of Legionaries were unaware of this life, above all because of the system of relationships built by Father Maciel, who had skillfully managed to build up alibis, to gain the trust, the confidence and the silence of those around him, and to strengthen his role as a charismatic founder.
Not infrequently, the lamentable discrediting and dismissal of whoever doubted his behavior was upright, as well as the misguided conviction of those who did not want to harm the good that the Legion was doing, created around him a defense mechanism that made him untouchable for a long time, making it very difficult to know his real life.
Discovering the truth about the founder "has caused the members of the Legion to experience surprise, bewilderment and deep pain", the statement goes on.
But it avoids implicating the Legion's current leaders in Maciel's double-life. While it is obvious that almost all Legionaries were ignorant, it strains credulity to believe that Maciel's close companions were. Many had taken vows of loyalty to him, vowing never to speak badly of him.
But that is the line that Fr Luis Garza Medina, the Legionaries' vicar general, was sticking to in an interview last week with La Repubblica: he was not aware of the abuse until after Father Maciel was punished in 2006, and did not believe it until the evidence was overwhelming. Even if that were true, however, Fr Garza's contention that "the Founder's behavior seemed impeccable" is rather hard to square with Jason Berry's recent revelations -- or with the Visitors' description above of Maciel as "devoid of scruples and of genuine religious sentiment". Did no one around him really notice nothing? And whose confidence and silence did Maciel not gain, if not those of the order's leaders?
The other issue carefully avoided by the statement is any examination of how Maciel could carry on the way he did for so long because of the powerful patronage of Pope John Paul II and top Vatican officials such as Cardinal Sodano. Whether or not this was looked at by the five bishops is something we shall probably never know.
The visitors have identified three areas for attention:
a) the need to redefine the charism of the Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ, preserving its true core, that of the “militia Christi” that characterizes the apostolic and missionary activity of the Church and is not the same as prizing efficiency at any cost;
b) the need to review the exercise of authority, which must be joined to the truth, to respect the conscience, and develop itself in the light of the Gospel as authentic ecclesial service;
c) the need to preserve through appropriate formation the enthusiasm of the faith of young members, their missionary zeal and their apostolic dynamism. In fact, the disappointment about the founder could call into question this vocation and the core of the charism which belongs to the Legionaries of Christ and is their own.
These suggest deep flaws in the Legion's internal culture which have long been pointed out by the Legion's critics. The first is the way it can appear to mimic an efficient corporation or militia, making an idol of loyalty and discipline. The second refers to the authoritarian culture of the organization, hostile to conscience and freedom of thought. The third makes the point that the attractiveness of the order to young people raises the question of how deep their enthusiasm goes.
Pope Benedict, the statement concludes,
wishes to assure all Legionaries and members of the Regnum Christi Movement that they will not be left on their own: the Church is firmly resolved to accompany them and help them on the path of purification that awaits them. It will also mean dealing sincerely with all of those who, within and outside the Legion, were victims of sexual abuse and of the power system devised by the founder: They are in the Holy Father’s thoughts and prayers at this time, along with his gratitude to those of them who, even in the midst of great difficulties, had the courage and constancy to demand the truth.
This is an important acknowledgement, for the Legion's ex-seminarians who first stepped forward to allege they had been sexually abused by Maciel faced enormous hostility and have had to wait many years for their vindication. The Vatican is grateful for their "courage and constancy to demand the truth".
The truth -- and a reminder that the "indestructible foundation" of the Legion is the call of Christ -- hold out the possibility of the order's renewal.
But more will need to come out. And further action taken.