They Know Not What They Do?
Jason Berry, with Co-Author Gerald Renner, Scrutinizes a Vatican That Hails the Founder of the Controversial Legion of Christ As a Hero of the Church. A Generation Ago, the Same Priest Was Accused of Molestation by Nine Priests and Seminarians

By Bruce Nolan
Times-Picayune [New Orleans LA]
February 29, 2004

Fourteen years ago In "Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children," New Orleans writer Jason Berry produced the first deep exploration of the ecclesiastical culture that yielded, then tried to conceal, the sexual abuse of children by some Catholic priests.

Now in "Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II," Berry and co-author Gerald Renner follow the lines of inquiry "Temptation" uncovered in the United States and trace them to the Vatican, the heart of the institutional Catholic Church, where they report evidence of deep, systemic rot that eats at the global church's governance structure.

Their Exhibit A is the case of the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of a worldwide religious order, the Legion of Christ, and an affiliated lay movement called Regnum Christi.

Proudly militant and devotedly orthodox, the 63-year-old Legion is thriving in Europe and the Americas, notable for the vocations it attracts and the distinctive character of its priests.

Depending on one's point of view, they exhibit a rigorous and joyous spiritual ?lan, or an arrogant superiority that has led critics in several American cities to complain that they are aggressive, deceptive and controlling.

But the central -- and uncontested -- datum in the Berry/Renner effort is this: Beginning in 1976 a group now totaling nine men, all former Legionary seminarians or priests from Spain or Mexico, have formally accused Maciel, 83, of sexually molesting them as teenagers. (One has since died.)

In the United States, nine accusations would be about seven more than necessary for any American bishop to relieve a priest from duty under the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Young People, at least until a full-blown church inquiry could hear the matter.

But in Rome, Maciel is revered as a hero of the church and remains the subject of special praise by Pope John Paul II.

The Vatican not only has not investigated the nine claims, but also it has never even accepted them for consideration. Nor has it told the men why it refuses to do so.

The reason presumably is that offered by the Rev. Owen Kearns, a Legionary journalist-priest, who clearly believed he was being helpful when he asserted in Maciel's defense on a Legion Web site that the Vatican elected not to "dignify them with a reply."

Here, the authors argue, is prima facie evidence of abuse of power, the sense of clerical privilege that holds that an ordinary soul's accusation against a charismatic priest (or nine souls' testimonies) is unworthy even of consideration -- or if found to be true, cannot be permitted to taint the church with scandal. It is the culture that infiltrated the American church for decades until exposed by legal and press systems not found in the Vatican's Europe or Maciel's Latin America, the authors argue. And because that culture of ecclesiastical cover-up has been exposed to some degree in Ireland and Australia as well, the authors assert it represents evidence of a global dysfunction that American bishops are powerless to cure.

Structurally, "Vows of Silence" is three books and several ambitious arguments that sometimes do not lie comfortably together.

It is at once a brief for a Legion/Vatican cover-up on behalf of Maciel and a condemnation of the operating ethos of Maciel's Legion and Regnum Christi. But it is also a retelling of the early days of the crisis in America -- this time with an emphasis on what the Vatican knew, when it knew it, and how in the late 1980s it resisted American bishops' discreet pleas for help.

"Vows" also contains an extended critique of John Paul's refusal to permit discussion of optional celibacy for priests, which the authors argue would ventilate a "sexual underworld" in which a handful of sexually immature, narcissistic gay priests in the United States have wreaked havoc for at least 30 years. And there are occasional discourses on the fate of dissident theologians and the need for more open theological inquiry, with some of these themes appearing and disappearing at what feels like odd moments. Quite a load.

In its first third, "Vows" recalls the days of the emerging clerical abuse scandal in the United States, primarily through the figure of the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a Dominican priest and canon lawyer attached to the Vatican's diplomatic staff in Washington.

Doyle is the authors' model for the way the church ought to be. Blunt, fair, commonsensical, Doyle reacts with horror to early stories of sexual abuse of children by priests, and with more horror to bishops' failure to come clean with parents and parishioners. His anger wrecks his career and leads him to become the most prominent victims advocate in the church today, a job he pursues from the relative backwater of an Air Force chaplaincy.

Doyle plays the foil to the figure of Maciel, whose life and work -- and whose alleged sexual abuse of young seminarians in his care -- comprises the greater part of the book.

Those charges are exhaustively detailed here. Renner is a former religion reporter with the Hartford Courant who began writing about the Legion through his contact with a Legion seminary in Cheshire, Conn., in the mid-1990s. More broadly, Berry and Renner describe the Legion and Regnum Christi as cult-like organizations that aggressively recruit new members through deception and psychological coercion, even as they enjoy the admiration of the Vatican.

Regnum Christi is active in many south Louisiana communities, and members will almost certainly find the authors' characterization libelous. The Legion, too, has prepared a long self-defense at, which the reader can lay alongside the evidence in "Vows of Silence" to reach a first-hand judgment. A second Web site,, claims to be a gathering place for self-professed ex-Legionaries highly critical of the order and its spiritual and psychological personality.

At bottom the readers are free to decide whose pile of evidence they find persuasive; to decide whether the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi are graced or flawed; to decide whether Berry and Renner have made their cases in any number of discourses that examine gay priests, dissident theologians, besieged bishops and an aged pope who they believe is both great and blind to the danger within -- who "instead of squarely facing the sexual revolution inside the priesthood, asking why so many good men left and others refused to enter, sanctioned the punishment of scholarly priests and intellectuals who asked the hard questions and argued for honesty and structural change."

Agree or not, at the end of the day there remains the matter of eight people asking to be heard, who cannot get their calls returned.

Bruce Nolan can be reached at or at (504) 826-3344.


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