The Legion’s Scandal of Stalled Reform

By Thomas V. Berg
First Things
June 22, 2012

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Cardinal Velasio de Paolis was named papal delegate to the Legionaries of Christ early in July 2010 to shepherd the congregation through a “process of profound re-evaluation” as mandated in a communique from the Holy See to the Legionaries on May 1st of that same year. His appointment followed upon a close scrutiny of all Legionary houses of formation and apostolate—a “canonical visitation”—conducted by a team of bishops appointed by the Pope. The visitation was mandated by Benedict after the congregation’s major superiors admitted in early 2009 that Maciel had lived a morally depraved double life, fathering at least a daughter and perhaps other children from at least one mistress, and sexually abusing young seminarians.

After twenty-three years as a Legionary, I discerned that it was best for me to abandon the congregation in 2009. Since the naming of De Paolis, I have watched and waited for needed reform. Now, two years later, I have decided to lift my silence to express my deep disappointment as well as my profound concern for the fine young men and dedicated priests who still compose the Legion.

In point of fact, the Legionaries are not some centuries-old and long-cherished religious family, deserving of every ounce of the Church’s energies to salvage it. The Legion’s seventy-one years of existence are immersed in controversy. Serious questions have been raised about the various “approvals” of the Legion in the 1940’s on account of Maciel’s duplicity. The Legion also escaped extinction under dubious circumstances after a Vatican investigation of Maciel in the 1950’s. I have held for quite some time that it would have been best for the Legionaries and the Church had Benedict opted to suppress the congregation. That he did not do.

We have, rather been witnesses of two years of stalled reform. Part of this must be attributed to Legion’s papal delegate, Cardinal de Paolis. A long-time Vatican bureaucrat and canonist who does not speak Spanish, the Legion’s official language, de Paolis’s has made two decisions which, over time, may well prove to be the congregation’s final undoing. First, he has chosen to leave multiple longtime and close collaborators of Maciel in positions of governance in the congregation. Second, and more disturbing, the Cardinal has chosen to forego a thorough and independent investigation into whether any present or former members of the congregation knowingly abetted Maciel.

Meanwhile, De Paolis’s approach to the “process of profound re-evaluation” has been to institute a series of group dialogues amongst Legionaries about the current constitutions, to task a small commission of Legionary priests (some of Maciel’s closest collaborators) to “re-write” the text of the Legion’s constitutions, and to prepare the groundwork for a general chapter of the congregation sometime in the next twenty-four to thirty-six months.

Current members more open to radical renewal believe that the most likely result of such a process will be little more than superficial and cosmetic changes to norms and discipline—a far cry from the sweeping changes to the internal culture of the congregation so urgently needed.

To be sure, the Catholic faithful have a right to a detailed account of just how the case of Marcial Maciel and the Legion could have ever happened in the first place. The facts—no matter what they may reveal in terms of negligence, omission, and even complicity from within the ranks of the Roman Curia itself—would be far less scandalous than the present refusals to know and embrace the truth.

The Legion’s superiors, meanwhile, have fostered a culture of institutional opposition to the radical reform that is truly required. The vast majority of superiors remain beholden to the presumption that there is something—some nucleus of norms and traditions—fundamentally sound and salvageable in the Legionary way of life. This is bolstered by the institutional conviction that the naming of a Papal Delegate constituted a de facto pontifical "approval" of the Legion's continuation as a congregation and affirmation of the existence of a valid charism and mission. Those contentions remain un-argued assertions which beg theological substantiation.

Also disturbing is evidence that far too many Legionary superiors—in the face of growing evidence of sexual impropriety and abuse in their own members—continue to embrace and foster a culture of cover-up and lack of transparency. Responding to Legionary Fr. Thomas Williams’ recent admission that he had fathered a child with a woman several years ago while maintaining a high profile media ministry, Legionary General Director Fr. Alvaro Corcuera responded with a patently disingenuous letter posted on the Legion’s website on May 21st. It contains assurances of ethical oversight of clerical misbehavior in the Legion’s ranks: “Today, when a serious charge is brought against any Legionary, we take precautionary measures.” The letter notably avoids an explanation of the historic pattern of cover-up by Legionary superiors, including Corcuera himself who astoundingly admits that he sat on knowledge of the Williams case not only during the canonical visitation of the congregation but even during the first year of De Paolis’s tenure as delegate.

Based on a recent conversation with a Legionary priest heavily involved in some of these cases of abuse, I can only conclude that, sadly, Fr. Corcuera’s letter never would have seen the light of day had not the press been pushing for information about allegations against some former and current Legionary priests, and had not a former Legionary priest forwarded information in regard to some of these allegations to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

It is the Legionaries’ unquestioning allegiance and fidelity to the current major superiors which, in turn, is the principal obstacle to the emergence of new charismatic leadership from within the Legion’s ranks. Such blind loyalty to men who could have been gravely negligent in their dealings with Maciel is unfathomable. The Church has never required of its religious that, in obeying the superior, they check human reason or critical thinking at the door.

Deeply troubling also are continued signs of an institutional resistance to the vocational discernment so necessary to each of the priests and the seminarians who remain in the congregation. The first immediate and obvious need of Legionaries three years ago (and still needed by so many today) was to open themselves to a genuine re-discernment of their vocation.

Why? Because the revelations about Maciel’s moral aberrations should have upended—in the minds and hearts of all Legionaries—the fundamental understanding of the religious family on which they based their choice to join the congregation in the first place. Indeed, it should have opened their entire vocational history to prayerful and discerning scrutiny. Which of us would have joined the Legionaries or made our temporal or final profession of vows, much less gone on to ordination, had we known of Maciel’s depravities? In my own case, the only prudent course of action in 2009 was immediately to seek sound spiritual direction from an experienced director outside of the Legion. Every Legionary at the time should have received assistance in doing the same. Every Legionary who remains today, if he has not already worked through that process, should be given the means to do so. Yet, the many current Legionary superiors would appear oblivious to such common—pastoral—sense. Family members of Legionary seminarians would do well, therefore, to persevere in convincing their loved ones to request a period of time to return home, and in a non-Legionary environment, aided by a sound spiritual director from outside the congregation, carefully to discern God’s will for their lives.

Is reform still possible in such an environment? No Catholic observer of the unprecedented saga of the Legionaries—much less the Legionaries themselves—should be closed to the unlimited possibilities of the Holy Spirit. However, given the current leadership of the Legionaries, we have serious reasons to doubt. It seems the congregation is today in a slow but certain demise, and this gradual disappearance of the Legion as the Church has known it would be—in my opinion and the opinion of many—a welcome relief.

The Church does not need the institution of the Legion of Christ. What is good in the Legion is the ensemble of elements of spirituality, piety, and traditions of religious life that are not unique to the Legion, but which rather emanate from the Church’s own spiritual patrimony. What the Church does very much need, however, are the good and zealous men who currently remain in the Legion.

Fr. Thomas V. Berg is Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York. He was a member of the Legionaries of Christ for twenty-three years.








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