The Public Square
Feathers of Scandal

By Richard John Neuhaus
First Things
March 2002

The story is told of St. Philip Neri (1515–1595) that he gave a most unusual penance to a novice who was guilty of spreading malicious gossip. He told him to take a feather pillow to the top of a church tower on a blustery day and there release all the feathers to the wind. Then he was to come down from the tower, collect all the feathers dispersed over the far countryside, and put them back into the pillow. Of course the poor novice couldn’t do it, and that was precisely Philip’s point about the great evil of tale bearing. Slander and calumny have a way of spreading to the four winds and, once released, can never be completely recalled. Even when accusations are firmly nailed as false, the reputations of those falsely accused bear a lingering taint. “Oh yes,” it is vaguely said, “wasn’t he once accused of . . . ”

The words of the Bard that you learned in grade school are entirely to the point:

Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
’Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

This reflection is occasioned by an attack on Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the eighty–two–year–old and much revered founder of the Legionaries of Christ, one of the more vibrant and successful renewal movements in contemporary Catholicism. The attack, alleging sexual offenses with seminarians some forty years earlier, first appeared in a 1997 story in the Hartford Courant, a Connecticut paper, and the story has recently been repeated in the National Catholic Reporter, a left–wing tabloid. The story was coauthored by Jason Berry, a freelance writer in New Orleans, who briefly gained national attention with a 1992 book, Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children, and by Gerald Renner, who was until recently religion writer for the Connecticut paper.

I hesitate to write about this, lest I be responsible for further disseminating what I heartily deplore. But the purpose is to collect and properly dispose of these feathers of scandal. I admit to being surprised that some of them have found their way into quarters usually averse to vicious gossip. Also, this reflection might be helpful in evaluating other stories of clerical sexual scandal, stories that reached a crescendo with what everybody came to recognize as the slanderous charges against the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago and that have since then been on the wane.

We should have no illusion that such scandal is a thing of the past, however, as witness the recent court proceedings against a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston. Such incidents are grist for the mills of liberals pressing for married priests and of others demanding that bishops exercise a stricter discipline. And, of course, they feed the media mill that, as Philip Jenkins has explained, is not deterred by the fact that the incidence of sexual abuse is probably higher among Protestant clergy and other professionals working with children (see “The Uses of Clerical Scandal,” FT, February 1996). Stories about Catholic priests have a certain cachet—and, for trial lawyers, a promise of cash—that is usually lacking in other cases. It is, I think, unseemly for Catholics to complain about that. Catholics should expect more of their leaders. Even one instance of abuse constitutes an intolerable offense against the victim and a breaking of most solemn vows freely undertaken.

Having said that, I expect that most readers, and especially those who, with good reason, admire the Legionaries, instinctively recoil from the story about Fr. Maciel, finding it both repugnant and implausible. There is something to be said for consigning it to the trash bin and forgetting about it. Nobody should feel obliged to read on, for the subject is decidedly distasteful. At the same time, the story is out there, and—as Berry and Renner and the complicit publications surely intended—it has no doubt done some damage. Forty and fifty years after the alleged misdeeds, there is no question of criminal action. Even were there any merit to the charges, which I am convinced there is not, the statute of limitations has long since run out. And what can you do to an eighty–two–year–old priest who has been so successful in building a movement of renewal and is strongly supported and repeatedly praised by, among many others, Pope John Paul II? What you can try to do is to filch from him his good name. And by destroying the reputation of the order’s founder you can try to discredit what Catholics call the founding “charism” of the movement, thus undermining support for the Legionaries of Christ.

The Power of Envy

Berry and Renner do not even try to hide their hostility to the Legion. Their story introduces the movement as “a wealthy religious order known for its theological conservatism and loyalty to the Pope.” In the world of Berry, Renner, the National Catholic Reporter, and the Courant (at least when Renner was writing for it), that is another way of saying that the Legion is the enemy. Nobody would dispute that Legionaries are theologically orthodox and loyal to the Pope. Some of us take the perhaps eccentric view that that is a virtue. As for the order being wealthy, that hardly seems the right word. The Legion has been very successful in eliciting the support of admirers for its many enterprises. Its most notable success has been in vocations to the priesthood. There are now about five hundred priests and twenty–five hundred seminarians, and the order is active in twenty countries on four continents, with schools in Latin America, Europe, and the U.S. In Latin America, the order is doing pioneering work in running schools and microeconomic development projects among the poor. Regnum Christi, a lay movement associated with the Legion, is also vibrant and growing.

There is no doubt that the many works of the movement require major resources, and that it is effective in raising money. But wealthy? One might as well say that the financially strapped Archdiocese of New York is wealthy because it could, after all, get untold millions by demolishing St. Patrick’s Cathedral and selling the property to developers. Or the Society of Jesus is wealthy because it could sell off Georgetown, Fordham, Boston College, and twenty–plus other Jesuit schools in this country alone. The fact is that the Legionaries of Christ are strikingly successful at a time when many other orders are languishing or even dying out. Also in the Church, alas, it is unwise to underestimate the power of envy. Slanderous attacks on new and vibrant religious orders are nothing new in the history of the Church. See St. Francis and the Franciscans, Dominic and the Dominicans, or Ignatius and the early Jesuits. Love, says St. Paul, “is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.” The unedifying but unsurprising truth is that, also in the Church, love is sometimes in short supply, and there is rejoicing at wrongs, and at alleged wrongs.

Recruited to a Cause

I am not neutral about the Legionaries. I have spent time with Fr. Maciel, and he impresses me as a man who combines uncomplicated faith, gentle kindness, military self–discipline, and a relentless determination to do what he believes God has called him to do. They are the qualities one would expect of someone who at age twenty–one in Mexico vowed to do something great for Christ and his Church, and has been allowed to do it. In the language of the tradition, they are qualities associated with holiness; in his case a virile holiness of tenacious resolve that has been refined in the fires of frequent opposition and misunderstanding.

And I am impressed by the words of Jesus that “by their fruits you shall know them.” I have known the Legion for some years now, speaking at their institutions in this country and, most recently, teaching a crash course on Catholic social doctrine at their new university in Rome, Regina Apostolorum. There were about sixty students in the course, almost all priests or seminarians, and I have never encountered anywhere a group of students more eager, articulate, or intellectually astute. And yes, they are orthodox and excited by the truth of the Church’s teaching. Critics who depict Legionaries as pious brainwashed zombies walking in lockstep under an authoritarian regime are, in my experience, preposterously wrong. As you might expect, given the name of the order, they do have a soldierly bearing, as though recruited to a great cause, which they have been. The single most striking characteristic of Legionaries, as I have encountered them in this country and elsewhere, is their palpable sense of joy and high adventure in their calling to be faithful priests.

It is said that the Legion is elitist. And I suppose there is something to that, keeping in mind that elitism is too often employed as a term of opprobrium by those offended by the violation of the mediocre. There is no doubt that Legionaries think they are part of something very special—as do all young people who surrender themselves to a great vision that is attended by demanding discipline. It was once true of those who entered the Society of Jesus, and still is true of some who, in the radically reduced number entering that order, are determined to revive the Ignatian charism. The leaders of the Legion strongly discourage comparisons with the earlier Society of Jesus, precisely because they know that such comparisons are so frequently made and have excited Jesuit hostility from the early days in Mexico to the present. But yes, there is a tone of elitism among Legionaries. At least as I read it, it is not a sense of sinful pride but of being privileged to be part of something so great in its challenge and promise. For them, to be a Legionary priest has a distinct panache, but it is panache in the service of achieving the pinnacle, which is to be—radically and without remainder—a priest of Christ and his Church.

In any course so demanding, it is inevitable that many do not make it. Others, having become priests, fall by the wayside or are found wanting. The result—and this is true of any community that does not fudge the distinction between success and failure—is that there are some who are disappointed, disgruntled, aggrieved, and bitter. And that brings us to the Berry/Renner story about Fr. Maciel. You don’t want to know the specifics of the charges, although Berry/Renner go into salacious detail about rude things allegedly done with young men, things that have become all too familiar from sex abuse stories of recent decades. Nine now elderly men who were once part of the Legion—two Spaniards and seven Mexicans—claim that in the 1950s Fr. Maciel more or less regularly abused them, and that this was a pattern pervasive throughout the order. Berry/Renner acknowledge that one of the accusers has recanted his story under oath, testifying that he was put up to telling tales by ringleaders who had for many years been trying to get other disaffected Legionaries to join in “showing up” Fr. Maciel. The fact that he has recanted his original charges does not prevent Berry/Renner from repeating them with what appears to be prurient relish. It is not the kind of stuff you would find in any mainstream media, but then Berry and Renner are not practitioners of what is ordinarily meant by responsible journalism. Berry’s business is Catholic scandal and sensationalism. That is what he does. Renner’s tour at the Courant was marked by an animus against things Catholic, an animus by no means limited to the Legion.

A Sinister Institution

Nonetheless, because I care about the Legion and because I was outraged by what I suspected was a gross injustice, I decided to go through endless pages of testimony, counter–testimony, legal documents, and other materials related to the Berry/Renner attack on Fr. Maciel. It was not an edifying experience. For Berry/Renner, it is worth noting, the case of Fr. Maciel is not all that important in itself, but it serves another purpose. “To many,” they write in the recent NCR article, “the case against Maciel is important because it tests the Vatican’s resolve to pursue charges related to sexual misconduct at the highest levels of the Church.” The “many” includes, first of all, Berry and Renner. That is clearly the reason for the latest re–raking of the muck of their 1997 article. They report nothing substantively new in the allegations themselves; the only new thing is that the Vatican has again considered the charges and found them without merit. A cardinal in whom I have unbounded confidence and who has been involved in the case tells me that the charges are “pure invention, without the slightest foundation.”

For Berry/Renner, however, the Vatican is a sinister and oppressive institution. Its stated concerns for confidentiality and fairness are, in their view, code language for secretiveness and evasion. Statements of church officials are never to be taken at face value, and certainly never to be given the benefit of the doubt. Let it be said that there have been instances in which church authorities have been less than straightforward, to put it gently. But for Berry/Renner, systematic mendacity is assumed. That the Pope consistently and strongly supports Fr. Maciel and the Legion is only evidence that he has been duped—or, the reader is invited to infer, that he is party to a cover–up. Nothing will satisfy them but that the Church comply with their prescribed procedures of investigation and, not incidentally, vindicate their sensationalist reporting. So much for the prejudices and purposes of Berry and Renner. In sum, they are in the scandal business.

With Moral Certainty

So what is a person who does not share their prejudices and purposes to believe? I can only say why, after a scrupulous examination of the claims and counterclaims, I have arrived at moral certainty that the charges are false and malicious. I cannot know with cognitive certainty what did or did not happen forty, fifty, or sixty years ago. No means are available to reach legal certainty (beyond a reasonable doubt). Moral certainty, on the other hand, is achieved by considering the evidence in light of the Eighth Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” On that basis, I believe the charges against Fr. Maciel and the Legion are false and malicious and should be given no credence whatsoever.

Recall the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in explanation of the Eighth Commandment:

Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:

— of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;

— of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s fault and failings to persons who did not know them;

— of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

It counts as evidence that Fr. Maciel unqualifiedly and totally denies the charges. It counts as evidence that priests in the Legion whom I know very well and who, over many years, have a detailed knowledge of Fr. Maciel and the Legion say that the charges are diametrically opposed to everything they know for certain. It counts as evidence that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and others who have looked into the matter say that the charges are completely without merit. It counts as evidence that Pope John Paul II, who almost certainly is aware of the charges, has strongly, consistently, and publicly praised Fr. Maciel and the Legion. Much of what we know we take on trust. I trust these people. The suggestion that they are either deliberately deceiving or are duped is totally implausible.

It counts as evidence that opponents of Fr. Maciel and his work succeeded in having him removed from the governance of the Legion for more than two years in the 1950s. At that time he was charged with drug addiction and misrule of the order. The Vatican appointed four impartial “visitators” who lived with the Legionaries and interviewed every one of them privately and under oath. They were asked to state anything they knew to the detriment of Fr. Maciel’s leadership. Not once, not even once, was there any mention of sex abuse or anything related to it. Fr. Maciel was completely exonerated and, with high praise, restored to the leadership of the order by the Holy See.

The accusers say they did not mention sex abuse at the time because it was a “taboo” subject and they were afraid of Fr. Maciel. The ringleaders who organized the 1990s campaign against Fr. Maciel, however, were not afraid to make other grave charges. Some had long–standing grievances arising from being removed from positions of trust in the order; all left the order under unhappy circumstances. The question of sex only came up later, when sexual abuse by priests was a topic of frenzied interest in the media and such a charge was viewed as lethal to a priestly reputation. The motives of the accusers are the subject of speculation, but the purpose of the accusations is, beyond doubt, to do grave damage to Fr. Maciel and the Legion. Although solicited by the ringleaders to join in the charges, others who were members of the order at the time in question have refused and have emphatically denied the claims of the accusers. They were there at the time. They would have known.

Picking Up Feathers

Common sense is also entered into evidence. Is it believable that, as alleged, a pathological, drug–addicted child molester could have founded a religious order in the 1940s that was approved by the Church and flourished for decades, while all the time casual sodomy and other heinous sexual abuses reigned in its houses? And this without a word of concern from thousands of parents or any claim of such wrongdoing in civil, criminal, or ecclesiastical courts? It is not believable. Is it believable that men who are now accusers, who were then adult members of the order, would have testified under oath to Fr. Maciel’s uprightness, thus lying to their highest superiors in the Holy See and refusing to mention years of abuse by a drug–addicted molester who had been removed as head of the order? It is not believable. The accusations are odious, as are the actions of those who continue to peddle them.

The accusers may say that they are seeking justice or, in the psychobabble of our time, looking for “closure.” I cannot plumb their motives. I do not know what grievances, grudges, or vendettas are in play here, or what memories or “recovered memories” are reflected in the accusations. The accusers are not going to court to seek damages of any sort. That is not a possibility. The sole end served by the charges is the attempt to gravely damage the Legionaries of Christ by discrediting their founder.

I am confident they will not succeed in that attempt. Because the accusations are false, and will be recognized as such by any fair–minded person who bothers to look into them. And because the Legionaries are so manifestly, capably, and joyfully determined to pursue their apostolate, undistracted by the opposition that is predictably encountered by any young and vigorous movement of renewal. To be sure, there are still those feathers of scandal scattered about. St. Philip Neri was right, it is probably impossible to collect all of them. But if you come across one, just pick it up and put it in the trash where it belongs.


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