Vatican Opens Investigation into Legion of Christ Priests

By Stacy Meichtry
Wall Street Journal
May 11, 2012

The Vatican has launched an investigation into whether seven priests in the Legion of Christ sexually abused minors, the Vatican and the Legion said on Friday, opening a new chapter in the prominent religious order's struggle to recover from a scandal that disgraced its founder.

The Legion, an order of priests founded in Mexico in 1941, said in a statement that it had reported the cases of alleged abuse to the Vatican's watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, after a preliminary investigation by the order concluded that the allegations had "a semblance of truth." One of the cases involved alleged abuse that occurred recently while the other cases involved alleged abuse from decades ago, the Legion said.

The Legion said other priests in the order—in addition to the seven under investigation by the Vatican—had faced allegations of sexual abuse. Investigations by church officials and, in some cases, civil authorities cleared those clerics of wrongdoing, the Legion said.

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi confirmed an investigation was under way, adding that the Legion had complied with Holy See rules requiring church officials to report credible allegations of abuse to the Vatican and to restrict the ministry of the priests involved.

News of the investigation was first reported by the Associated Press.

On Friday, the order said it had received complaints "over the past few years, in several countries" that some Legion priests were allegedly involved in "gravely immoral acts." The Legion said it had reported the abuse allegations to police in countries where such reporting is required under law. The Vatican requires church officials to inform civil authorities about alleged abuse only when local laws demand it. The legion didn't offer any details on the outcome of those cases.

The investigation deepens the struggle of a religious order that was once among the Catholic Church's most powerful institutions. The Legion's late founder, Mexican priest Rev. Marcial Maciel, cultivated strong ties with Mexico's business elite over the decades, and became a close friend of the late Pope John Paul II. In the 1990s, however, some former seminarians and former priests went public with allegations that they had been sexually abused by Father Maciel in the past, and in 2006 Pope Benedict XVI ordered him to withdraw from ministry to live a life of prayer and penance. Father Maciel, who denied the allegations, died in 2008, before the Vatican definitively concluded a long-running investigation. He was never charged. The Vatican investigation ruled after his death that he abused seminarians.

In recent years, the Legion has repudiated Father Maciel, condemning his conduct. The order also has confirmed media reports that the cleric clandestinely fathered a child. But it hadn't said there had been allegations of abuse by other Legion priests.

Father Maciel's victims say the Legion founder's conduct was enabled by a culture of silence inside the order that prevented members from speaking out against the group. The Legion since 2010 has been under special administration by a Vatican cardinal tasked with overhauling the group in the wake of the scandal surrounding its founder.

"Marcial Maciel established a cult of abuse and coverup," said Jose Barba, a retired former professor at Mexican university ITAM. He was one of a group of former priests and seminarians who filed a canonical lawsuit against Father Maciel in 1998 alleging abuse and other crimes. The Vatican never officially replied to the lawsuit, but it helped spur its action removing Father Maciel from his public ministry in 2006. Mr. Barba says he estimates Father Maciel abused at least 100 seminarians during his career in the Legion.

Another victim of Father Maciel said he believed at least some of the priests now accused by the Vatican of being abusers had themselves been abused by Father Maciel as seminarians but stayed in the Legion. "The rotten seed can't give forth good fruit," said the victim, who denounced Father Maciel's actions to the Vatican years ago. "The chain continues, and those who are abused have a great proclivity to be abusers, especially in that culture of elitism and secrecy."

Some groups representing victims of sexual abuse criticized church officials for not disclosing the allegations more swiftly. "For months or years, Catholic officials have put kids at risk by staying silent about these credible allegations of heinous crimes," said Barbara Dorris, outreach director of the U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

The Legion and the Vatican declined to disclose the names or roles of the priests under investigation. The Legion said the seven priests were being kept away from children. The order has about 800 priests in its operations world-wide.

—Jose de Cordoba in Mexico City contributed to this article.

Write to Stacy Meichtry at








Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.