Signs of the Times

Vatican May Reopen Old Abuse Complaints

A previously dormant case against Marcial Maciel Degollado, L.C., founder of the Legionaries of Christ, could be reopened at the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican lawyer said in a letter to three former members of the Legionaries who accused the priest of molesting them when they were minors. It seems to me that now the case is being taken seriously, Martha Wegan said in a letter to the accusers. Wegan is a staff attorney for the Holy See who specializes in cases involving church law.

In response to an inquiry by CNS, the Legionaries’ U.S. spokesman, Jay Dunlap, said, The Legion of Christ is not aware that the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has taken in the past or is now taking any action regarding accusations against its founder.


In her letter, written in Italian and dated Dec. 2, 2004, Wegan wrote that Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, the congregation’s promoter of justice, telephoned me asking if you...want to pursue the suit or not. The promoter of justice is roughly the equivalent of a prosecutor in the church court system.

Juan J. Vaca, a psychology professor at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., and one of the three men to whom the letter was addressed, said that the men want to pursue the case, although at this point...I’ve lost all trust in Vatican officials. Vaca was once a Legionary priest and head of its North American territory.

Father Maciel, who is now 84, founded the Legion of Christ, also called the Legionaries of Christ, in 1941, when he was still a seminarian. The order now has about 600 priests and 2,500 seminarians worldwide, including in the United States more than 75 priests, a seminary and a novitiate in Connecticut.

Nine former Legionaries, one of whom is now dead, have publicly accused Father Maciel of sexually abusing them when they were teenage seminarians in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. Father Maciel has consistently denied ever engaging in any such activity.

After earlier complaints brought no response from the Vatican, in 1998 the eight accusers who were still alive drew up a formal complaint seeking a canonical case against Father Maciel. The time limit for bringing charges of sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric had run out under the church’s statute of limitations, so his accusers sought to have him tried for giving absolution to an accomplice in a sexual sin.

Vaca says that when he was being abused in his seminary days, he once told Father Maciel that he needed to go to confession about those incidents. Vaca says Father Maciel tried to dissuade him, but when he was insistent the priest said, Here, I will give you absolution, and made a sign of the cross over him. José de Jesús Barba Martín, a professor of Latin American studies at Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico in Mexico City, and Arturo Jurado, a professor at the U.S. Defense Languages School in Monterrey, Calif., were the other two recipients of Wegan’s letter. Vaca reports that both of them also say Father Maciel gave them absolution when they expressed moral qualms about their role in sexual acts with the priest.

Church law says that any priest who attempts to absolve an accomplice in sexual sin incurs an automatic excommunication that only the Holy See can lift.

According to the men who filed the canonical complaint in 1998, the case had lain dormant from late 1999 until Msgr. Scicluna’s recent phone call to Wegan. Since 1999, however, the crisis in the United States of sexual abuse of minors by members of the Catholic clergy has sparked significant changes in the Vatican’s approach to cases of priests accused of such offenses. In November 2002 Pope John Paul gave the doctrinal congregation the ability to waive the statute of limitations for that crime on a case-by-case basis.

Father Maciel received public congratulations from Pope John Paul II on Nov. 30, 2004, at the end of a week of Legion celebrations in Rome marking the 60th anniversary of the Mexican-born priest’s ordination. The pope praised Father Maciel’s intense, generous and fruitful priestly ministry and said that ministry has been full of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

CARA Says Recent Mass Attendance Steady

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate said Mass attendance by self-identifying U.S. Catholics remained fairly unchanged between 2000 and 2004 despite the crisis of sexual abuse of minors by members of the Catholic clergy that intervened. In a report released on Jan. 10, the independent Catholic research agency, based at Georgetown University, said there is a long-term decline in Mass attendance by Catholics, but that this trend is best explained by generational change and not any large segment of the Catholic population changing their patterns of Mass attendance.

CARA conducted 10 national polls between September 2000 and September 2004 in which people who identified themselves as Catholic were asked a variety of questions, including, Aside from weddings and funerals, about how often do you attend Mass? In September 2000, 33 percent of the respondents said they attend Mass at least once a week. In September 2004, 31 percent gave that response.

In the intervening polls, two of the highest responses 39 percent saying they attended at least weekly in February 2002 and 35 percent in May of that yearcame as the scandal of sexual abuse of minors by clergy was making headlines almost daily in the nation’s newspapers.

CARA researcher Mark M. Gray said, There is no evidence that the Mass attendance of younger or older Catholics changed after allegations of clergy sexual abuse entered the news. However, stark generational differences in Mass attendance are evident.

Pre-Vatican II generation Catholics grew up in an era where deliberately failing to attend Mass on Sunday or another day of obligation without good reason was quite clearly communicated as a mortal sin, Gray said. For the Vatican II and post-Vatican II generations this has not been emphasized to the same degree.

Citing Gallup polls over many years, CARA said Mass attendance in a given week apparently peaked at 74 percent in 1957-58, gradually declining to about 41 percent in 1997, then spiking briefly to a new peak of 52 percent in 2000 before falling back to 40 percent in 2003.

Catholics Fear Abuse Costs Curtail Church Work

A survey of Catholics who regularly attend church shows growing concern about the church’s financial ability to fulfill its mission because of the costs related to the crisis of sexual abuse of minors by clergy.

The crisis has also increased the desire by lay Catholics for greater church accountability on financial issues, according to a survey conducted by telephone during the first half of December 2004, sponsored by Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, in Washington, D.C.

Clearly, nearly three years after the clergy abuse scandal broke, one of the lingering elements is that parishioners are still not content with the financial stewardship of the church, said Charles E. Zech, economics professor at Villanova University and an expert in church-giving patterns, who helped draft the questionnaire and wrote the analysis accompanying the survey.

The survey also reported that 14 percent of those questioned had reduced their parish contributions and 19 percent had reduced their donations to national church collections because of the crisis. At the same time, 8 percent had increased their giving at the parish level and 5 percent had upped their donations at the national level, it said.

But when asked what single issue had the greatest impact on your decision to support the church financially, only 8 percent of the respondents listed the sexual abuse scandal. The most frequent answer, given by 41 percent, was recognition that the church needs my contribution. Twenty percent listed the economy.

The survey said that 65 percent of the respondents expressed concern that the cost of settling cases of sexual abuse by clergy would harm the church’s ability to conduct its mission. Greater financial accountability in general by church officials was favored by 70 percent of the respondents. A higher number, 76 percent, said that each diocese should give a full accounting of the costs related to the sexual abuse crisis. Sixty-one percent of those surveyed favored yearly independent audits of church finances at all levels.

Regarding ways of paying costs related to sex abuse cases, respondents were allowed to give multiple answers. Coming in first was sale of church property, favored by 38 percent. Next came holding a special diocesan collection, 36 percent; declaring bankruptcy, 35 percent; and closing parishes, 28 percent. (The full survey is available on the Fadica Web site at

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11 years 8 months ago
The Vatican should not reopen a sexual abuse case against Marcial Maciel, L.C., the founder of the Legionaries of Christ (1/31). It cannot hurt the elderly founder but will do great damage to the many fine priests and seminarian Legionaries. I cannot see any good being accomplished. The accusers are seeking only revenge and are exhibiting hatred. At this late date, I doubt if the full truth can be ascertained. That is why there are statutes of limitation. There are healing remedies available to the accusers. They should use them. The Legionaries have been so successful and their spiritual formation so excellent that I believe this is simply another attack by Satan who hates anyone who is trying to make Christ’s message succeed. The Legionaries of Christ represent a reformation movement in the Catholic Church. They should be imitated, not destroyed.


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