Vatican Quietly Scuttles Abuse
By GERALD RENNER
Special To The Courant
May 24 2005
The Vatican announcement that no action will be taken against the
founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a conservative religious order,
has stunned those who accuse him of having sexually abused young
seminarians in his charge years ago.
The decision announced by the Vatican Press Office short-circuits
normal church procedures to reach a resolution in the case against the
Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado.
Neither the men making the accusations nor their canon lawyer in Rome
had been told of the decision as of Monday, said one of the accusers,
Juan Vaca, of Holbrooke, N.Y., a former Legionary priest who once
headed the order in the United States.
Vaca, now an adjunct professor of psychology and sociology at Mercy
College, Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., said he felt betrayed. "I am more than
upset," he said. "I've lost all faith in the church."
Maciel, 85, the Mexican founder and recently retired head of the
Legionaries of Christ, recently was the subject of an intense
preliminary investigation by a high-level Vatican agency known as the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly headed by Cardinal
Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.
The case against Maciel gained wider attention when Ratzinger became
pope. As a cardinal, Ratzinger had been in charge of handling sexual
abuse allegations, and observers were looking to this case as a test of
how seriously the Vatican will pursue allegations such as those that
have roiled the church in America.
Maciel now lives in Rome and enjoyed favored status under Pope John
Paul II, who often praised him for his work in building an order of
more than 600 priests, a reported 2,500 seminarians, a dozen major
universities, and a network of elite schools. The Legionaries has its
U.S. headquarters in Orange and a seminary in Cheshire.
Monsignor Charles J. Scicluna, a priest from Malta who is "permanent
promoter of justice," a type of prosecutor for the congregation, gave
new life to the canon law case against Maciel last December while
Ratzinger was still in charge.
His orders were to help clean up the backlog of sex abuse cases. The
case against Maciel had been lying dormant for nearly six years.
Scicluna contacted Martha Wegan, the Vatican-approved canon lawyer who
was an advocate for eight former Legion seminarians who alleged that
Maciel had sexually abused them when they were teenagers in the 1940s,
'50s and '60s.
Wegan wrote a letter on Dec. 2, 2004, to three of the leading accusers,
saying that Scicluna "telephoned me asking if you ... want to pursue
the suit or not." The men replied that they did.
On Jan. 23, the Legion announced that Maciel was retiring but that his
retirement had nothing to do with the renewed investigation.
In April, Scicluna traveled to the United States and Mexico, where he
personally interviewed more than 30 people, including seven of the
eight men who made the accusations, as well as several others claiming
abuse who had not publicly come forward before.
Vaca, one of Maciel's accusers, said Scicluna told him that he believed
him and the others and that "the church owed us a public apology."
Vaca, who entered the order as a 10-year-old boy and was president of
the Legion in the United States from 1971 to 1976, said he had been
abused by Maciel for more than a decade. He submitted written
complaints to Pope John Paul II in 1978 and again in 1989 but got no
response. He had lost all trust in Vatican officials, he said, but had
renewed hope when Scicluna appeared to be doing a serious investigation.
Jose Barba, a Harvard-trained professor of Latin American studies at
Instituto Tecnological Autonomio de Mexico in Mexico City, who also
made accusations against Maciel, told Jason Berry, reporting for the
National Catholic Reporter: "We are the victims and we have been
telling the truth. If the Holy See does not make a declaration of the
truth, we stand in limbo. Is that justice?"
Announcement by the Vatican Press Office on Friday that there will be
"no canonical process" against Maciel was never conveyed personally to
the men making the charges nor to Wegan, their Vatican-approved lawyer
It came about indirectly after the Italian newsweekly L'Espresso
published an article in its May 20 edition by veteran religion writer
Sandro Magister recapitulating the case against Maciel and reporting on
Scicluna's visit to the United States and Mexico. In response, the
Legionaries of Christ in Rome released a statement saying that "there
is no canonical process under way into our founder ... nor will one be
Catholic News Service, an agency of the American bishops, reported on
Friday that the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, a Vatican spokesman, confirmed
the Legion statement after he was asked about it. The New York Times on
Sunday quoted Benedettini as saying, "There is no investigation now,
and it is not foreseeable that there will be another investigation in
His statements to the Catholic News Service and the Times made no
reference to Scicluna's interviewing more than 30 people or how that
squared with his statement that there was no investigation. He did not
say why the process was stopped and did not say that Maciel was
Scicluna and others in the doctrinal office involved in the
investigation, bound by a vow of secrecy, are not allowed to comment.
Whether he was allowed to finish his report and whether Pope Benedict
read it are unanswered questions. Wegan also is not permitted to
comment as a condition of working as a Vatican-sanctioned lawyer.
The Legionaries' statement said: "We hold no grudge against those who
accuse us; rather, we keep them in our prayers while expressing our
humblest gratitude to the countless people of good will who in these
circumstances have reiterated to us their support and esteem."
The statement also quoted Maciel as denying the accusations: "I can
categorically state that the accusations brought against me are false.
I never engaged in the sort of repulsive behavior these men accuse me
In church law, sexual abuse charges have an effective statute of
limitations of 10 years, but that can be waived by the pope. The most
serious charge against Maciel, however, has no limitation - that he
absolved in confession some of the boys he is accused of abusing. That
amounts in canon law to a sacrilege of the sacrament of penance, which
incurs an automatic excommunication, or expulsion, from the Catholic
The charges were made public for the first time in February 1997 in an
article in The Courant. In 1998, the men - all professionals comprising
five Mexicans, two Mexican-Americans and a Spaniard - filed their case
under church law. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
accepted the complaint as credible for further investigation but never
proceeded, and no investigation was made.
David Clohessy of St. Louis, director of Survivors Network of those
Abused by Priests, which has long been agitating for Vatican attention
to the accusations against Maciel, expressed outrage at the latest
"This transparent whitewash aborts the church's legal system to the
benefit of a notorious pedophile and the harm of brave, persistent
victims," he said in a statement. "Pope Benedict has forfeited all
credibility on the single most serious crisis in the church."
He continued: "It borders on cruelty to inexplicably close, re-open
years later, then suddenly and inexplicably close this Vatican sex
abuse investigation again, while issuing no findings, taking no
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