HUNTINGTON, Ind. (Our Sunday Visitor) When Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, was asked by the Vatican not to exercise his priestly ministry in public in May, many took it as a slap either a slap in the face to a visionary, charismatic leader who is being persecuted despite his innocence, or a slap on the wrist to a man who has betrayed and abused young men in his care.
Nobody, it seems, believes that Father Maciel, who also founded the Regnum Christi movement, either got what he deserved or deserved what he got.
Jim Fair, the U.S. spokesman for the Legion of Christ, a congregation of priests also known as the Legionaries, said the limits placed on Father Maciel's ministry will have little practical effect on the day-to-day operations of the international religious order. Father Maciel, 86, stepped down as superior last year.
He was succeeded by Father Alvaro Corcuera Martinez del Rio, who met with Pope Benedict XVI in June and reportedly told him the Legionaries and its associated lay movement, Regnum Christi, were in "the most complete adherence" to the pope and his ministry.
"If there was any concern or doubt that the Vatican saw what we were doing as a good thing, that was put to rest," Fair said.
What's more, Fair has absolutely no doubt that Father Maciel is innocent of accusations that he sexually abused seminarians decades ago. Any statements to the contrary, he said, amount to persecution of a holy man the kind of persecution Jesus referred to in the Sermon on the Mount when he said, "Blessed are those who hate and persecute you for holiness' sake; you shall see God."
But Genevieve Kineke, a member of the ReGAIN network, the decision to ask Father Maciel from performing his priestly duties in public is nothing more than a ploy to avoid a formal canonical trial, which could establish guilt and result in more serious canonical penalties.
ReGAIN is a Virginia-based association of former members of the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi, as well as members' families and friends, who believe they have been adversely affected by the movement.
Even without a canonical trial, the events of the past several months have brought Father Maciel, the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi into the public eye and increased the number of inquiries ReGAIN has received.
The move came in a Vatican announcement May 19 in which Pope Benedict XVI called Father Maciel to "a life of prayer and penance."
The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith began looking into the matter in 1998 after receiving allegations from nine men then in their 50s and 60s who said they had been abused in the 1940s, '50s and '60s by the founder.
While many Vatican observers believe that the step indicates there was some credibility to the accusations that Father Maciel had abused teenage boys, many including some of the accusers were disappointed that the Vatican did not hold a formal canonical trial. Such a trial could have led to Father Maciel's laicization.
Innocent or guilty?
A religious priest who is a longtime observer of religious congregations said the effect of the instruction on the Legionaries can't be pinpointed yet. How it all plays out depends on whether Father Maciel is innocent of the crimes of which he has been accused, said the priest, who asked not to be identified.
"If he is guilty, it's obviously going to affect them," the priest said. "If he is guilty, then they can do damage control, if they are completely honest and open and transparent about it, and if they look at what elements of the path they follow have been influenced by this."
On the other hand, the priest said, if Father Maciel is not guilty, then "the Holy Spirit will be with him and with his institute."
Regardless, the priest said, the Legionaries and Regnum Christi should both survive and be able to carry on their work.
"Father Maciel has obviously done great things, even if he has fallen into this sin," he said.
The Legionaries and Regnum Christi have sparked controversy for years, being banned from operating in some U.S. dioceses while enjoying wide popularity among some conservative Catholics who admire the group's fidelity to the magisterium and its success at attracting young men to the priesthood. While there is no formal women's congregation, some women who belong to Regnum Christi make private promises to consecrate themselves to Christ.
Father Maciel himself has been a lightning rod almost since founding the order in 1941, when he was a 20-year-old seminarian who had left two seminaries in Mexico already.
Father Maciel has been accused of sexual abuse in the past; as now, he proclaimed his innocence.
Kineke, who was a member of Regnum Christi for seven years before leaving in 2000, said the policy of not allowing public criticism makes it very difficult for Legionaries and consecrated members of Regnum Christi to share any negative experiences or information.
Many of them are likely to believe Father Maciel is a persecuted saint, she said. Others, especially Regnum Christi who have outside sources of information, seem to be questioning the congregation's statements.
But because of Father Maciel's central role in the formation of Legionaries and Regnum Christi members, Kineke said, it would be difficult for the movement to distance itself from him.
Father Donald Cozzens, author of The Changing Face of the Priesthood, agreed that the instruction to Father Maciel will cause difficulty for the Legionaries and Regnum Christi.
"The church's action is anything but positive, especially since the allegations against him are coming from mature men," he said.
But the Legionaries and Regnum Christi likely will not abandon their defense of Father Maciel, Father Cozzens added.
"They are going to stand by their man," he told Our Sunday Visitor. "I think many of the groups that take a very strict approach to all church teaching are very often motivated by fear that we are losing something in the church. They are going to see this as a threat."
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Michelle Martin writes from Illinois for Our Sunday Visitor.
Republished with permission by Catholic Online from the Nov. 2, 2007, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper (www.osv.com) in Huntington, Ind., a Catholic Online Preferred Publishing Partner.