Finally, Vindication

By Carol Eisenberg
Newsday [Long Island NY]
May 20, 2006

Juan Vaca of Holbrook thought he might go to his grave without ever getting justice from the Roman Catholic Church.

But Friday, the former Roman Catholic priest was vindicated in his 30-year campaign against the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the powerful founder of the international order, the Legionaries of Christ. Vaca had accused Maciel of repeatedly raping him and 20 other seminarians as adolescents and young men-an accusation he first made as a Rockville Centre priest in 1976 at the urging of the late Rockville Centre Bishop John McGann.

After investigations that spanned three decades, the Vatican announced Friday that Maciel had been asked to live a life of "prayer and repentance, renouncing every public ministry" - meaning he cannot publicly celebrate Mass or any other sacrament.

Although the statement was silent on whether the Vatican had found merit to the accusations, canon law experts say that it would not have imposed such a severe penalty unless it believed they were substantive. The penalty, one step short of defrocking, means that Maciel will be a priest in name only.

The 86-year-old Mexican founder is the most powerful Catholic church official ever sanctioned on sex-abuse charges. The decision, approved by Benedict XVI, demonstrates the new pope's determination to rid the priesthood of scandal, even if it means pursuing those close to his predecessor.

Maciel had enormous standing under the late John Paul II because of his conservative views and his success in raising money and recruiting men to the priesthood. As recently as January 2005, he was praised by John Paul for his "paternal affection and his experience."

The Rome-based Legionaries - a new and relatively small order compared with, say, the Franciscans - said in a statement that Maciel was innocent of any charges, but in the manner of Christ, would not defend himself and accepted the Vatican decision "with faith, complete serenity and tranquility of conscience."

As described by Jason Berry and Gerald Renner in their 2004 book, "Vows of Silence," Vaca went to see Rockville Centre's McGann in April 1976 to explain why he had asked to change his status from a Legionary priest to a Long Island diocesan priest.

Vaca told McGann that after being recruited by Maciel at age 10, and separated from his family, that Maciel had raped him from the time he was 12 until he was 25, according to the book's account, which Vaca confirmed in a 2004 Newsday interview.

Vaca said McGann asked him to write a detailed account of his experiences, which McGann then forwarded via diplomatic pouch to Rome, along with a similar complaint from the Rev. Felix Alarcon, another former Legion priest also then working in Rockville Centre, and the names and addresses of 18 other men whom Vaca identified as victims.

But nothing came of it then - not when the letters were first sent; not in 1978, when they were sent again; and not 13 years later, when the diocese forwarded a letter from Vaca asking for release from his priestly vows to marry "because of the serious traumas I suffered for years for being sexually and psychologically abused by the Superior General and Founder, Marcial Maciel."

In 1998, Vaca joined a group of former seminarians who hired a canon attorney and brought a complaint to Rome. "We cannot go to our deaths being accomplices to this big lie," Vaca explained. That investigation was halted in 1999, and then reactivated in 2004.

Vaca, who now teaches psychology and lives in Holbrook, could not be reached for comment Friday.

But Berry, reached at his home in New Orleans, praised both the determination of Benedict - and of Vaca. "To me, Juan Vaca is a heroic figure," he said. "He stood up against a system of sexual concealment by the oldest church in Christendom and he insisted on moral justice. And in the end, he was vindicated, although it took 30 years."

Priest was a favorite of John Paul II

Born in Mexico to an influential Catholic family, the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado founded the Legionaries of Christ in Mexico City in 1941.

The order grew exponentially, now boasting about 600 priests and 2,500 seminarians in 20 countries in America, Europe and Australia. The group's lay branch, Regnum Christi, is estimated to have 50,000 members worldwide.

Despite a hint of scandal in the 1950s - Maciel was investigated and cleared then of charges of alleged drug use, trafficking and misuse of funds - his ministry grew. In part as a result of his strong conservatism and success at bringing in new recruits, Maciel was a favorite of John Paul II, traveling with him to Mexico in 1979, 1990 and 1993.


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