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Legion of Secrets: Jason Berry's saga ends

The Vatican's admission of a powerful priest's secret life is vindication for a New Orleans writer and filmmaker who exposed the scandal.

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Father Maciel Degollado and a supporter present a gift to Pope Paul VI in this undated photograph. The men had known each other since 1946.
  • Father Maciel Degollado and a supporter present a gift to Pope Paul VI in this undated photograph. The men had known each other since 1946.

February began with a call from a woman who has provided reliable leads in a saga I've been following for 15 years: the tale of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the religious order Legionaries of Christ, and his twisted relationship with the Vatican.

  Born in Mexico in 1920, Maciel established the Legion headquarters in Rome in the 1950s, building seminaries, prep schools and universities in several countries. With only 800 priests — the Jesuits have 13,300 — the Legion has a $650 million annual budget. The most brilliant fundraiser of the modern church, Maciel lured 70,000 backers into a lay group, Regnum Christi, which studies Maciel's letters in prayer sessions with priests and is also the Legion's financial backbone. Some, like my informant, believe it to be a cult.

  "This is amazing!" said my caller, who left Regnum Christi years ago. "The Legion is telling its priests and members that Maciel had a grown daughter. These people are in a free fall. "

  On Feb. 3, Catholic blogs teemed with accounts of Legion priests and Regnum Christi members outraged over their superiors' abrupt disclosure. The New York Times reported they were "shaken by new revelations that their founder, who died a year ago, had an affair with a woman and fathered a daughter just as he and his thriving conservative order were winning the acclaim of Pope John Paul II." Several days later, the Italian newspaper L'espresso reported Maciel's daughter was in her early 20s and lived in Spain.

  In 2004 I published Vows of Silence with Gerald Renner. The book exposed Maciel's history of abusing seminarians while casting himself as an anti-Communist spiritual warrior; the narrative follows a quest by nine ex-Legionaries through the Vatican courts in a 1998 case filed with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, seeking Maciel's ouster for abusing them as youths. They had taken vows never to criticize Maciel and to report on those who did.

  Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005. In May 2006, he banned Maciel from active ministry without specifying why. In a statement, the Vatican praised Regnum Christi and the Legion, which had denounced the victims. Maciel's picture hung in the Legion's 23 American prep schools, where students were taught he was a living saint. The Legion announced that Maciel took his "new cross ... with tranquility of conscience." Privately, the order told its followers that Maciel, wrongly accused, would one day be a true saint.

  It was a bizarre ruse for Pope Benedict to tolerate. Yet that soft-glove punishment, turning crimes into sins, was true to the Vatican justice system's double standard. Ratzinger had defrocked many priests who abused youngsters; but a cardinal and 15 bishops who resigned public posts after being exposed as abusers remained in the church as titular, if nonpublic, bishops.

  When the news of Maciel's daughter broke last month, Bruce Nolan reported in The Times-Picayune that Regnum Christi has 9,500 American families with "an estimated 200 families in metro New Orleans and Baton Rouge." Yet, of nearly a dozen families he contacted, none would talk.

   Now the Legion is in a civil war. Many U.S. priests are enraged at the three Mexican clerics Maciel chose to run it, and Vatican cardinals are attempting damage control, distancing Benedict from the Legion. How much did they cover up for the pope?

Father Maciel accepts the blessing of Pope John Paul II.
  • Father Maciel accepts the blessing of Pope John Paul II.

In 1994 a Mexican National, Arturo Jurado, called me from Monterey, Calif. A teacher at the U.S. Defense Languages Institute, Jurado had read my book, Lead Us Not Into Temptation, and insisted I listen to a story of how he and other seminarians were sexually abused in Spain and Rome in the 1950s by the priest they called Nuestro Padre, Our Father. I'd never heard of Maciel or the Legionaries, but Jurado insisted, "The Vatican knows!"

  He sent me documents. I read eight graphic, notarized accounts in Spanish, but was riveted by a 1989 letter in English to Pope John Paul II from Juan Vaca, an ex-priest in Long Island, N.Y., recounting his abuse by Maciel that began when he was 12. I interviewed Vaca by phone, and also had calls with Jose Barba, a Harvard-trained college professor in Mexico City who left the Legion in 1962, a decade before Vaca.

  The proposal I pitched to major magazines and TV networks, an abuse cover-up scandal leading to the pope, hit brick walls. Then, in July 1996, Gerald Renner, the religion editor of The Hartford Courant, called. He had just written about odd Legion fundraising tactics taking place at the group's American base in Connecticut. Did I know anything about the order?

  Renner secured a special joint assignment for the Courant. In November, we flew to Mexico City to interview Barba, Jurado and others. Renner interviewed Vaca and a Spanish ex-Legionary, still a priest, with a parish in Florida. Barba, Vaca, Jurado and others told us that, as seminarians cut off from their families for years, they lied to protect Maciel — and preserve their hopes of becoming priests. The men had gone public only after John Paul ignored Vaca's letters in the mid-1970s. They filed no lawsuits. They wanted papal justice.

The author (right) and Gerald Renner at the Vatican on a research trip.
  • The author (right) and Gerald Renner at the Vatican on a research trip.

  The Vatican ignored our interview requests, and Maciel sent a statement asserting his innocence. Legion lawyers bombarded the Courant with affidavits purporting to show our sources were part of a conspiracy. Maciel's "defense" was that in the 1950s the Vatican investigated him for drug abuse (our sources said he was a morphine addict) but found him innocent.

  Published in February 1997, our 7,000-word report was largely ignored by American media. But the news ignited a wave of reporting in Mexico, where Maciel was a national figure, and a disinformation machine swung into gear. The Web site www.legionaryfacts.org posted attacks on the accusers and denounced us for publishing false information. William Donahue of the Catholic League derided our report. Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon, who later became U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, scoffed at the allegations. Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, called the charges "scurrilous" and claimed for "a moral certainty" that Maciel was innocent. George Weigel, a biographer of Pope John Paul II, praised the Legion. So did Bill Bennett, now a CNN pundit, who had spoken at Legion fundraisers.

  As the canon law case gathered dust, Maciel held ordinations of dozens of young men, which pleased John Paul because of a global shortage of priests.

  But in late 2004, with John Paul in failing health, Ratzinger opened an investigation, and Maciel, 84, announced he was stepping down as the Legion's director general. Maciel picked three priests from wealthy Mexican families to guide the Legion in 2004: Alvaro Corcuera as director general, and his assistants Luis Garza and Evaristo Sada. John Devlin, an Irish priest, was Maciel's personal secretary. They knew Maciel's schedule and how he traveled alone until his final illness. No one disputed his demands for large sums of money. The investigator, Monsignor Charles Scicluna, had a law-and-order reputation on abuse cases that made him unpopular in some canonical circles. He also worked under a Pontifical Vow of secrecy and shunned reporters.

  In 2005, I began working on Vows of Silence, a documentary that follows Scicluna's probe, interviewing his witnesses after they gave him their testimonies. I didn't want another "secret" investigation as in the 1950s.

  I was filming in Rome in April 2006 when Renner emailed me to say he thought Maciel would soon be punished; he urged me to contact Sandro Magister, the religion writer at L'espresso, who had helped us before and has excellent Vatican sources. Maciel, Magister said, would be punished "doucement" — gently, discreetly. In May I was back in New Orleans when the news came that Benedict ordered Maciel to a "reserved life of prayer and penitence." A National Catholic Reporter story quoted a Vatican official who said Maciel had "more than 20 but less than 100" victims. The Legion Web site attacks on the abuse survivors and us disappeared. It was wiped clean.

Father Maciel in later years, meeting with members of Regnum Christi.
  • Father Maciel in later years, meeting with members of Regnum Christi.

  When did the Pope learn about Maciel's daughter? That question still hovers. On Dec. 14 Cardinal Franc Rodé, who oversees religious orders, gave the public line at a Legion gathering in Brasilia: "God has made the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi flourish as the work of his own hands. You can always count on the pope's esteem and support, as well as on mine." Meanwhile, Corcuera has had several meetings with Benedict, publicized on the Legion Web site, to assure followers all was well.

  Now, with anger rising among Americans in the Legion over what the superiors knew and for how long, the news of Maciel's daughter puts Vatican officials in an unwelcome spotlight. At the end of February, Edwin O'Brien, the archbishop of Baltimore, called for a review of the Legionaries and Regnum Christi, saying he could not "in good conscience recommend that anyone join the Legion or Regnum Christi." Of Maciel, the archbishop said, "It seems to me and many others that this was a man with an entrepreneurial genius who, by systematic deception and duplicity, used our faith to manipulate others for his own selfish ends."

Jerry Renner Died after a battle with cancer in fall 2007; he was 76 and one of my best friends. Barba, Vaca and several other Maciel survivors joined me at his funeral in Norwalk, Conn. By then the Legion had filed suit against Regain, an ex-Legion support group with a Web site that posted the order's constitutions. Regain could not afford the expensive legal defense. In a trampling of the First Amendment, the Legionaries killed the Regain message board and forced the return of the bylaws with Maciel's tactics to suppress any criticism of him.

  Maciel died at 87 on Jan. 30, 2008, supposedly in Houston. He was buried in his hometown of Cotija, Mexico, not the great tomb he prepared in the Our Lady of Guadalupe Basilica he built in Rome. The Legion Web site announced that he went to Heaven.

Supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism, the author's film on the Maciel story won an award for Best TV Documentary at the Mexico City International Documentary Film Festival. Learn more about it at www.vowsofsilencefilm.com.

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