By Jay Dunlap |New Oxford Review.
Jay Dunlap served as communications director in North America for the Legion of Christ and its lay affiliate, Regnum Christi, from 1998 to 2006 and as a communications consultant from 2006 to 2010. He is currently President of Madonna School & Workshop, the Archdiocese of Omaha’s outreach to children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
This April Popes John XXIII and John Paul II were canonized together. This moment of great rejoicing in the Church arose under a shadow, due in large part to two high-profile television documentaries that detail how the Church responded — or failed to respond — to the criminal actions of Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ.
And PBS Frontline investigation titled Secrets of the Vatican, and a documentary on Irish television titled The Legion, both dwell on the fact that three Popes — John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II — failed to take action when informed of Fr. Maciel’s sexual abuse, drug addiction, and misuse of funds.
There is a good explanation for why these three Popes did not move against Maciel. The explanation does not excuse inaction, nor does it abrogate responsibility at various levels of the Vatican for having enabled Maciel’s corruption and deception. But such an explanation answers the question raised about these three Popes: Why didn’t they act?
I served as communications director for the Legion of Christ in North America from 1998 to 2006. My responsibilities included media relations and helping the Legion in crisis management. Published reports of allegations against Fr. Maciel kept me and my colleagues busy for long stretches of time. And a central part of the Legion’s response, I am convinced, explains why the three Popes ignored the allegations: “The charges had already been thoroughly examined and found baseless.” Or so we were led to believe, and so we told others.
Though Maciel had been kicked out of two seminaries prior to starting what would become the Legion in 1941, the first record we have of allegations against him comes from 1954, when a Legionary seminarian named Federico Dominguez wrote a letter to the Holy See detailing Maciel’s sexual abuse, drug abuse, misuse of funds, and more. In 1956 the Holy See sent apostolic visitators to seek the truth. Five clerics conducted the investigation. One, a leader of the Discalced Carmelites named Anastasio Ballestrero, found the Legion in “juridical chaos” but otherwise “sound.” Another, a Belgian missionary to Chile, Polidoro van Vlierberghe, was won over by the young Legionaries and became a strong defender of Maciel.
Meanwhile, Maciel himself was sent to a clinic to determine if he were a drug abuser. After a couple weeks he was given a clean bill of health. Decades later I would ask experts in drug addiction whether a person could successfully hide addiction during such a stay. I had hoped that they would say it was impossible, but they assured me that it would be easy to hide.
In 1958 the visitators finished their investigation. They presented conflicting reports and a lack of conclusive evidence. Dominguez, and other victims since him, noted how Maciel successfully crafted a culture of secrecy and deception that easily protected him during the visitators’ brief stays in Legionary communities. Even so, the Vatican moved slowly, deliberating carefully over the visitators’ findings.
Pope Pius XII, who had developed a serious gastrointestinal illness in 1953, was noticeably weakened during the last five years of his papacy. On October 9, 1958, with a decision regarding the status of the Legion yet to be reached, Pius XII went to his eternal reward. Later that month, John XXIII became his successor.
Good Pope John inherited the Legion mess and tensions over whether to reinstate Maciel or disband the congregation. The new Holy Father had to rely on the visitators’ reports and the guidance of advisors. He sided with Maciel’s supporters, led by Clemente Cardinal Micara, pro-prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Rites. Investigative reporter Jason Berry, co-author of Vows of Silence, a book-length exposé on Maciel and the Legion, notes that in 1946, during Maciel’s first trip to Rome, the young founder gave Cardinal Micara $10,000 — a “huge sum” in post-World War II Rome. Maciel got his payback thirteen years later when Micara pushed for and won the settlement of the investigation in favor of Maciel and his Legionaries.
Consequently, John XXIII and his two successors would never act on allegations brought to them about Maciel. Why? Consider the evidence they would see — or not see. John Paul II’s longtime personal secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz, now a cardinal, has said that John Paul’s praise of Maciel was a clear mistake that happened because “when the Holy Father met him, he knew nothing, absolutely nothing. For him, he was still the founder of a great religious order and that’s it. No one had told him anything, not even about the rumors going around.”
John Paul’s longtime secretary of state, Angelo Cardinal Sodano, had been successfully “cultivated” by Maciel for decades. Berry tracks the way Sodano was plied with cash and other lavish gifts. When, in the waning years of John Paul’s papacy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, took up the charges against Maciel, he and his investigators reportedly had to resort to using outside e-mail addresses in order to circumvent Sodano and his curial allies. There were others in daily contact with Cardinal Dziwisz and John Paul II who also had close connections to the Legion, such as papal photographer Arturo Mari, whose son was ordained a Legionary priest in 2007.
What, then, did the Popes know about Maciel and the Legion? They knew only what they saw: abundant vocations; young, enthusiastic priests launching new schools and missions; strong support from important curial officials — though the Holy Fathers would not have known that Maciel had “purchased” their favor.
To top it all off, the accusations against Maciel, as we were quick to note, “had already been investigated by the Holy See and found baseless.” Here is the forceful way we expressed it in some official Legionary communications (underlining in the originab* “Not only did they find the charges empty and baseless, they reported that the Legion and Fr. Maciel were exemplary, holding great promise for the Church.”
In retrospect, it is not hard to see how the investigation reached a false conclusion. From his earliest days in Rome, Maciel showed great skill in cultivating people in power. One example speaks volumes: When Maciel founded his order, its original name (and still its official name in Vatican documents) was the Congregation of the Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Sorrows. That name was both too long and too similar to so many other religious congregations, so Maciel consulted with Church leaders. He suggested to Fr. Giovanni Montini that it be called the “Legionaries of the Pope.” Fr. Montini is said to have suggested “Legionaries of Christ.” Montini would later become Pope Paul VI.
During his pontificate, Paul VI remained a friend and defender of Maciel. The story is told that when Maciel sought to launch a university in Mexico City, the local archbishop would not grant him approval. Maciel went straight to Paul VI, showed him a map of the land on which he wanted to build what would become Anáhuac University, and Paul VI carved out a new diocese to which he appointed a bishop receptive to Maciel and the Legion. How’s that for influence?
If the purportedly definitive investigation of the 1950s, the Legion’s thriving growth, and the successful “cultivation” of well-placed prelates help to explain the failure of three papacies to respond to the substantive allegations against Maciel, what turned the tide? Why, in 2004, some fifty years after the allegations first surfaced, did Cardinal Ratzinger begin the investigation that unraveled the myth of Maciel and exposed the ugly truth about him and his lies and deceptions? There are fascinating parallels between the two probes that are separated by half a century: Both investigations were launched as great Popes were diminished by age and illness; both were concluded during one papacy but were left to successive pontiffs to handle; both were impeded in one way or another by the curial forces Maciel had won to his side. Ultimately, Cardinal Ratzinger’s inquiry, which bled over into his own papacy, showed that Maciel’s accusers were telling the truth, and that the Legionary founder led a “wasted, twisted life” that was “out of moral bounds,” as Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) would conclude.
The doggedness of Maciel’s victims is, beyond a doubt, the prime factor that brought the truth to the fore. In the 1950s a handful of seminarians and a young priest alone tried to expose the truth; they were no match for Maciel’s influential insiders. In the 1960s accusations were easily pushed aside. In the 1970s men abused as seminarians who had been serving as Legionary priests began to leave the order, notably Juan Vaca, who sent his own detailed report of Maciel’s misdeeds to the Vatican through Bishop John McGann of Rockville Centre, New York, where Vaca was incardinated until he left the priesthood in the late 1980s.
In the 1990s the victims went public. Working with Jason Berry and Hartford Courant religion writer Gerald Renner, they raised the profile of Maciel’s secretive operation with an award-winning series of in-depth exposés, first published in February 1997. (Berry continues to report on the Legion to this day; Renner died in 2007.)
The victims also hired a canon lawyer, Martha Wegan, to plead their case in the Vatican. By 1998 they were no longer quietly trying to work through back channels; they had given Maciel the high media profile he had carefully avoided, and they were pressing their case as best they could through the Church’s legal apparatus.
The victims did not get immediate satisfaction, so they pressed on. I was hired by the Legion in March 1998 to help deal with the ongoing media reports and other communications issues. Like many, I was attracted by the Legionaries’ fidelity, their good works, and the inspiring young men I met who were Legionary seminarians and priests. We gave Maciel the benefit of the doubt based on the apparent evidence of a new order of priests that seemed like God’s gift to the Church to combat the decline that was everywhere around us: dissent, laxity, and the catastrophic exodus of men and women from the priesthood and religious life. The Legion seemed like the answer, or at least a part of it.
Maciel was extremely clever in how he positioned himself for revelations of the truth. He professed to pray for persecution so that when the crisis came, it seemed like the answer to the prayers of a “modern martyr.” He refused to respond personally to the charges, making it seem as if he chose only to “suffer the betrayal” in silence.
Beyond damage control and what I believed was the defense of an innocent man, another key aspect of my job was to work on reforming the Legion’s secretive culture and help the order understand how to build good media relations. The Legion’s method of recruiting vocational prospects and lay members of Regnum Christi in places where they had no permission to operate had to come to an end, so “cultivating bishops” was a priority. And through it all, we made copious use of photographs of Maciel with John Paul II.
Our final recourse was always to say, “See how much the Pope loves us!” This is where the documentaries and other reports that cast a shadow on John Paul II and others have it backwards: John Paul II did not know about the accusations against Maciel, and Maciel — and those of us who defended him — thoroughly exploited the favor of the Holy Father.
Years went by, the victims continued their campaign, and when the canon-law channel would appear shut, they would start another media campaign. Brian Ross of ABC News’ 20/20 program did an exposé in April 2002 that raised the profile of the accusations to a new level. In 2003 I was given a pre-release copy of Berry and Renner’s book Vows of Silence. Its subtitle, The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, is certainly incendiary, and we used that to our advantage, saying, “They attack the Legion but they really want to take down the Holy Father.”
I spent months digging through the book, noting details and preparing arguments against them. The book contains a few flaws and inaccuracies (things like using the wrong title for positions held within the Legion) that we exploited in order to cast doubt on the quality of the authors’ reporting. But by the time I had finished combing through the text, I was in a personal and professional crisis. There were testimonies from victims and witnesses for which we simply did not have adequate responses.
I met with my Legionary superior and told him of my crisis. His response made it seem as though he, too, was troubled and struggling. I prayed, and I kept going. In hindsight, I should have left then. But I was deeply enmeshed in the culture of defending Maciel. It was my job, and I had young children to feed.
I gradually went from praying for Maciel’s vindication to praying simply for the victory of the truth. Thanks to Cardinal Ratzinger, soon to be pope, that victory came to pass.
Vows of Silence came out in early 2004. We were ready with our defenses, leaning heavily on the “definitive 1950s investigation” and the favor of John Paul II. It was at this time that Cardinal Ratzinger appointed a respected canon lawyer, Msgr. Charles Scicluna of Malta, to take up the Maciel investigation. They communicated by external e-mails in order to escape the watchful eye of Cardinal Sodano and Maciel’s other highly placed protectors. And these two men brought Maciel to justice, at long last.
Scicluna, now a bishop, has been back in the news recently: On January 16 he represented the Holy See before a United Nations human-rights panel and faced a barrage of pointed queries about the Vatican’s alleged violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. And then on February 5 he was presented with a number of belittling and outdated proposals for reform when that same panel issued its report. There is no little irony in the fact that it was Bishop Scicluna, the Church’s former lead investigator of child abuse and the man who broke through to reveal the truth about Maciel, who was reprimanded for the Church’s failure to deal with abusers and was lectured on the wonders of worldly, secularist sexual morality. No good deed, as the adage tells us, will go unpunished.
In a Church composed entirely of sinners, Maciel successfully manipulated enough of us to insulate himself for decades against the truth of his crimes. He had an eye for ecclesiastical “rising stars,” charming his way into friendships with many people in important positions and solidifying those relationships by virtue of his total control of Legion finances. Regardless of donors’ intent, Maciel turned his fundraising prowess into lavish gifts for those bishops and Vatican insiders who were most receptive. He knew he did not need to persuade all of them, just enough to keep himself safe. And the impressive growth of a congregation that attracts faithful young men and women to the religious life and launches countless schools and missions was certainly enough to convince even popes to give him the benefit of the doubt — which they did. And so did I, and many others.
It is one of the profound mysteries of the modern Church that a man could found such a vibrant religious congregation as a cover for his double life as a megalomaniacal thief, philanderer, and pederast. While the Holy See has sought the reform of the Legion, it has not shut the order down. Benedict himself stated that even though Maciel “remains a mysterious figure,” and a “false prophet, so to speak,” the “dynamism and the strength with which he built up the congregation” is evident. “Naturally corrections must be made,” the Holy Father said, “but by and large the congregation is sound. In it are many young men who enthusiastically want to serve the faith. This enthusiasm must not be destroyed. Many of them have been called by a false figure to what is, in the end, right after all.”
The Church, it seems, is still discerning to what extent the Holy Spirit has been at work in this deeply flawed but sincerely Catholic institution. Many have left and continue to leave, but many others remain. This past December, the congregation ordained thirty-one new priests — half as many as it did three years earlier, but still not a negligible number. And so the mystery of Maciel and his Legion lives on. If nothing else, it is powerful evidence against the Donatist heresy that a sinful priest affects the efficacy of the sacraments; even Maciel could dispense graces. Could a criminal give the Church a lasting movement of renewal? God will answer in His time. Saints John XXIII and John Paul II likely already know.
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