New pope must address scandal of Legionaries of Christ founder
Questions over protection of child abuser Maciel Degollado remain unanswered
St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
When Pope Benedict spoke of the face of the Catholic Church being “disfigured”, and when he used the word “filth” about aspects of church life, maybe he was partly referring to the Vatican itself. The next pope will have a major task ahead of him, not just with the universal church, but with reforming the Roman curia.
The Vatileaks gave us insight into a dysfunctional system. We got a glimpse of a structure that was riddled with power struggles, infighting and jealousies. Even if only part of what was revealed is true, it still amounts to a major clean-up task for the new pope.
My concern is an older scandal, which continues to reveal new and more astonishing features. I am referring to the story of the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Marcial Maciel Degollado. For those who don’t know, this man founded a large and conservative religious order, and also a lay institute, Regnum Christi. He was a great friend of John Paul II, and of one of the most powerful people in the Vatican, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.
He died in 2008, and it is now clear that not only had he fathered children by two different women but, much more disturbing, he had a record of sexual abuse, including seminarians and even some of his own children. He was also possibly the greatest fundraiser the church has known. His order, the Legionaries, is immensely wealthy, and he poured enormous amounts of money into the Vatican, including reputedly funding most of John Paul’s foreign journeys.
Many questions need to be answered regarding this man and his relation to the Vatican establishment. How could he continue to be welcomed and honoured by the pope and the curia long after it became clear that there was at the very least serious concern about him? Facing up to these questions will have to be part of making a fresh start.
What did Pope John Paul know, and when did he know it? In 2004 he ordained 60 Legionaries in the Vatican, and he spoke of Maciel as the perfect example of priesthood to be followed by these young priests. This was years after a Vatican investigation had taken place, and when knowledge of Maciel’s activities was being widely published. If John Paul did know that there was, at least, great suspicion about this man, why did he present him as a model? Or was it that he, old and frail, was ignorant of the facts? If so, who was responsible for not warning him, to prevent him from making such a terrible mistake? Or is it possible that the pope did know, but chose to ignore the facts?
There must be people in the Vatican who know the answers to these questions. John Paul has already been declared “blessed”, and there is a possibility that he may be canonised.
When the truth eventually emerges, and if it is the case that John Paul was actually covering up for Maciel, and that comes out after canonisation, it will do enormous damage to the church.
Equally, if the pope was ignorant of something that by then was widely known both in the Vatican and around the world, what does that say about the real authority of popes, and the way they are treated by the curia?
Life of penitence
Joseph Ratzinger, when he became pope, quickly removed Maciel from ministry, and ordered him to a life of penitence. (A recent court case has revealed that, far from penitence, he lived out his life in a luxury complex in Florida.) For how long before he became pope did Joseph Ratzinger know of the activities of Maciel but failed to act out of respect for the ailing pope – or for some other reason?
Who else in the Vatican knew of the lifestyle and sexual abuse of Maciel, and when did they know it? What, if anything, did they do to stop it?
The methods Maciel used to get money out of people, especially old widows and wives of wealthy men, were also questionable. A lawsuit is taking place in Rhode Island where a woman is trying to recover $30 million Maciel got from her aunt.
It is widely believed that he gave large sums of money to individuals within the Vatican. His favoured method of doing this, apparently, was to hand over suitcases full of cash.To his credit, Joseph Ratzinger refused to take money from Maciel.
Who in the Vatican took money, how much, and what did they do with it? And what of Cardinal Sodano, the acknowledged defender of Maciel? How is it that he is still in a senior position in the Roman curia?
These are just some of the many questions and challenges facing the new pope in the Vatican itself. Maybe there is an acceptable explanation which, given its obsession with secrecy the Vatican won’t allow out, and which might give a different flavour to it all.
However, if things are as they seem, then all the people involved in the cover-up, in receiving the money raised by Maciel, in not passing on the information, should be removed from their positions, and should no longer have any role in the government of the church at any level.
I am not confident this will happen. Too many of the old men who will gather tomorrow to elect the new pope know, metaphorically speaking, where the bodies are buried. Even if a new pope wants to clean the place out, will he have the power to do it? But still, there is the Holy Spirit.
Fr Tony Flannery is a Redemptorist priest and member of the leadership team of the Association of Catholic Priests