A Victim of the Church in Mexico
By Maria Elena Salinas
May 30, 2006
When I heard the news that the Vatican had finally sanctioned Father Marcial Maciel after a decade-long investigation into allegations of sexual abuse, I could not help but think of Alberto Athie, formerly known as Father Athie.
Maciel -- one of the most revered yet controversial members of Mexico's Catholic Church -- is the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, an ultraconservative organization originally based in Mexico City and known for, among other things, its loyalty to the pope.
In the late 1990s, nine former seminarians accused Father Maciel of having sexually abused them between 1943 and the early 1960s. Their complaints fell on deaf ears. Maciel was particularly close to Pope John Paul II. The pontiff considered allegations against Maciel malicious.
The original investigation was halted by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, but the case was reopened in 2004. It seems that new, more credible evidence surfaced with the new investigation, and now, as Pope Benedict XVI, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has ratified a decision to ask Father Maciel to live a life of penitence and prayer, barring him from celebrating public masses.
Although Alberto Athie was never sexually abused by Maciel, he was a victim of the scandal that shook the church. His story, like the cases of abuse themselves, shows a dark side of the Catholic Church. As I recount in my book, "I Am My Father's Daughter," Athie once held highly respected positions within the Catholic Church in Mexico. He was an international coordinator for the Vatican's charity, Caritas. He also served as a leader in the church's commission for peace and reconciliation in the insurgent Chiapas region. But the confession of a dying man and Athie's search for justice led to the downfall of his promising career in the church.
In 1994, a former priest who had been rector of a prestigious university in Mexico told Athie on his deathbed that he had been sexually abused by his superior while in the seminary decades earlier. Father Athie spoke to the man of the delicate balance between forgiveness and justice. "Forgiveness does not mean that we give up our search for justice," he recalled telling the man.
"Then I will forgive," said the former priest, "but I want justice to be done."
At the funeral mass, when Athie spoke of the former priest's wish, several men approached him with similar stories about the accused priest, Father Marcial Maciel. They wanted to go public with their allegations, and Athie suggested that they seek justice from within the church's chain of command. They eventually told their story to the Hartford (Conn.) Courant. And then all heaven broke loose.
Athie himself tried to find justice within the church and was told, in no uncertain terms, to back off, but his conscience wouldn't let him abandon the alleged victims. For his refusal to give up the case, Athie felt the wrath of his bishops. He was relieved of his duties, one by one. Unrelenting, he took the matter all the way to the Vatican. But to his surprise, he once again ran into a brick wall. He was forced to leave Mexico, and eventually, when the church cut off all support, he left the priesthood altogether. As a layman, he now works with peasants in the Mexican countryside on agrarian reform and other social issues.
Athie is convinced that what ultimately happened was a negotiation between the accused and the Vatican in which they could both win. "The church continues to put the image of the institution and the prestige of its ministers above the vindication of justice for the victims," he said.
As Maciel retires into a life of privacy as a martyr of sorts in the eyes of his followers, the victims of his alleged abuse will continue to seek justice, including Athie, the man whose integrity led to his downfall in the church he vowed to serve.
Maria Elena Salinas is a syndicated columnist for King Features. Reach her at www.mariaesalinas.com
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