Clerical sex abuse saga clouds papal visit to Mexico and Cuba


NOT FOR the first time, 84-year-old Pope Benedict flies out of Rome this morning for an important overseas visit that could yet be troubled by clerical sex abuse polemics.

When details of the six-day pastoral visit to Mexico and Cuba were first released, most Vatican commentators inevitably focused on the political implications of a second papal visit in 14 years to communist Cuba.

Will the pope meet 85-year-old Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro? Will he issue a blanket condemnation of the USA’s 52-year-old economic embargo on the island? Will the Cuban regime led by Raul Castro, brother of Fidel, attempt to exploit the pope’s visit, using it as some sort of government propaganda tool? Or will this visit improve both church-state relations and the status of the island’s seven million Catholics?

Before he gets to Cuba next Monday, however, the pope may be confronted in Mexico with the all-too-familiar problem of clerical sex abuse. At the centre of this polemic is the Catholic order, the Legionaries Of Christ, whose Mexican founder, Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado, was denounced as guilty of “very serious and objectively immoral behaviour” by the Holy See in May 2010.

That denunciation came on the heels of an apostolic visitation to Mexico, which confirmed long-standing media speculation about Fr Maciel, concluding that he had lived a “doppelganger” life in which he not only abused seminarians but had also fathered three children by two different women. In May 2006, the then Cardinal Ratzinger ordered Fr Maciel, who died in 2008, to stop practising his ministry, ordering him to live a “retired life of prayer and penitence”.

On the eve of the pope’s visit to Mexico, the Maciel issue has raised its ugly head thanks to a new book La Voluntad De No Saber (The Will Not To Know) written by former legion member and abuse victim Juan José Barba. He was one of those seminarians who filed a formal complaint to the Congregation For The Doctrine Of The Faith in 1998, then headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, the current pope, alleging they had been sexually abused by Fr Maciel.

Barba now wants to know why eight years passed before Benedict first acted against Maciel and why the Holy See preferred to cover up the scandal rather than listen to the huge body of accusations filed by him and eight other seminarians.

He and other victims have also expressed disappointment at the Vatican’s announcement last week that no meeting between the pope and abuse victims had been scheduled. On previous overseas trips, to Australia, the US, Germany, Malta and the UK, Benedict met abuse victims.

The sex abuse issue may yet overshadow a visit that has been seen by many as an attempt by the “Eurocentric” pope to curry favour in Latin America, home to more than half of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics.

Sixteen of the pope’s 22 trips have been to Europe, and he stressed his Eurocentric vision for the church again last month when naming 16 Europeans and just one Latin American among 22 new cardinals.