Money paved way for Maciel’s influence in the Vatican

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[Parts 1 & 2]

National Catholic Reporter

Apr. 06, 2010
By Jason Berry
Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado greets Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square in this 2000 file photo. (CNS)

First of Two Parts

In his time, the late Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado was the greatest fundraiser of the modern Roman Catholic church. He was also a magnetic figure in recruiting young men to religious life in an era when vocations were plummeting. Behind that exalted façade, however, Maciel was a notorious pedophile, and a man who fathered several children by different women. His life was arguably the darkest chapter in the clergy abuse crisis that continues to plague the church.

The saga of the disgraced founder of the Legion of Christ, a secretive, cult-like religious order now under Vatican investigation, opens into a deeper story of how one man’s lies and betrayal dazzled key figures in the Roman curia and how Maciel’s money and success helped him find protection and influence. For years, the heads of Vatican congregations and the pope himself ignored persistent warnings that something was rotten in the community where Legionaries called their leader Nuestro Padre , “Our Father,” and considered him a living saint.

The charismatic Mexican, who founded the Legion of Christ in 1941, sent streams of money to Roman curia officials with a calculated end, according to many sources interviewed by NCR: Maciel was buying support for his group and defense for himself, should his astounding secret life become known.

This much is well established from previous reporting: Maciel was a morphine addict who sexually abused at least 20 Legion seminarians from the 1940s to the ’60s. Bishop John McGann of Rockville Centre, N.Y., sent a letter by a former Legion priest with detailed allegations to the Vatican in 1976, 1978 and 1989 through official channels. Nothing happened. Maciel began fathering children in the early 1980s — three of them by two Mexican women, with reports of a third family with three children in Switzerland, according to El Mundo in Madrid, Spain. Concealing his web of relations, Maciel raised a fortune from wealthy backers, and ingratiated himself with church officials in Rome.

“What I can say about Fr. Maciel is that he was a consummate con artist,” Fr. Stephen Fichter, a sociologist and former Legion official, told NCR. “He would use any means to achieve his end, even if that meant lying to the pope, or any of the cardinals in Rome.”

When Maciel died on Jan. 30, 2008, the Legion leadership announced that the 87-year-old founder had gone to heaven. While God alone knows Maciel’s fate, the Legion’s statement stands in hindsight as one final act of deception by a figure whose legacy is still wreaking havoc from the grave. In February 2009, the Legionaries revealed that Maciel had a daughter. Late last month, the Legionaries issued a vaguely worded statement of regret to unnamed victims of Maciel — four years after Pope Benedict XVI banished him from active ministry to “a life of prayer and repentance” for abusing seminarians.

Maciel left a trail of wreckage among his followers. Moreover, in a gilded irony for Benedict — who prosecuted him despite pressure from Maciel’s chief supporter, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state from 1990 to 2006 — Maciel left an ecclesiastical empire with which the church must now contend. The Italian newsweekly L’espresso estimates the Legion’s assets at 25 billion euros, with a $650 million annual budget, according to The Wall Street Journal .The order numbered 700 priests and 1,300 seminarians in 2008. On March 15 of this year, five bishops, called visitators, from as many countries, delivered their reports to the pope after a seven-month investigation. A final report is expected by the end of April.

Not in centuries has a scandal in the church had such complexity as this one. A huge financial operation is in the hands of a religious order many critics have likened to a cult, a group whose leadership is suspected of hiding its superior’s corrupt life. As the Vatican grapples with the Legion — and thorny legal questions as to whether the Holy See can intervene in the Legion’s far-flung financial operations — three of Maciel’s sons and their mother in Mexico demand compensation, claiming they were cut off by the Legion when Maciel died.

Besides the complex questions of whether to dismantle or “reform” the Legion, Benedict is under pressure from a resurgent sex abuse scandal in Ireland, and cases from years back in Germany, Wisconsin and Arizona, in which he reportedly failed to discipline abusive priests.

The Legion scandal stands out for another reason: The Maciel case and the trail of money he reportedly gave cardinals raises profound ethical questions about how money circulates in the Vatican.

In an NCR investigation that began last July, encompassing dozens of interviews in Rome, Mexico City and several U.S. cities, what emerges is the saga of a man who ingratiated himself with Vatican officials, including some of those in charge of offices that should have investigated him, as he dispensed thousands of dollars in cash and largesse.

Maciel built his base by cultivating wealthy patrons, particularly widows, starting in his native Mexico in the 1940s. Even as he was trailed by pedophilia accusations, Maciel attracted large numbers of seminarians in an era of dwindling vocations. In 1994 Pope John Paul II heralded him as “an efficacious guide to youth.” John Paul continued praising Maciel after a 1997 Hartford Courant investigation by Gerald Renner and this writer exposed Maciel’s drug habits and abuse of seminarians. In 1998, eight ex-Legionaries filed a canon law case to prosecute him in then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s tribunal. For the next six years, Maciel had the staunch support of three pivotal figures: Sodano; Cardinal Eduardo Martínez Somalo, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life; and Msgr. Stanislaw Dziwisz, the Polish secretary of John Paul. During those years, Sodano pressured Ratzinger not to prosecute Maciel, as NCR previously reported. Ratzinger told a Mexican bishop that the Maciel case was a “delicate” matter and questioned whether it would be “prudent” to prosecute at that time.

In 2004, John Paul — ignoring the canon law charges against Maciel — honored him in a Vatican ceremony in which he entrusted the Legion with the administration of Jerusalem’s Notre Dame Center, an education and conference facility. The following week, Ratzinger took it on himself to authorize an investigation of Maciel.

John Paul’s support gave Maciel credibility as he moved with seamless ease among the ultra-wealthy. At a 2004 fundraiser in New York, a video cameraman filmed him running his fingers down the tuxedo lapel of the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, a major Legion supporter. Besides donations, Legion schools in Mexico with high tuitions and low salaries subsidized the operations in Rome, say men familiar with the order’s finances.

As questions swirl about how Maciel misled so many people, his ability to attract the powerful and influential is beyond dispute. Legion supporters ranged from Steve McEveety, producer of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (Legion priests advised on the film), to Thomas Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza and Ave Maria University in Florida. Others who supported the Legion include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who spoke at Legion conferences; Spanish opera singer Placido Domingo, who performed at a fundraiser; and the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, who wrote that he believed with “moral certainty” that the charges against Maciel were “false and malicious.”

Harvard Law Professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon taught at Regina Apostolorum Athenaeum, the Legion’s university in Rome, and advised in the planning that led to the order’s first university in America, University of Sacramento, Calif. In a 2002 letter for the Legion Web site she scoffed at the allegations against him and praised Maciel’s “radiant holiness” and “the success of Regnum Christi [the order’s lay wing] and the Legionaries of Christ in advancing the New Evangelization.”

Author and conservative activist George Weigel also endorsed the Legion in 2002 on its Web site: “If Fr. Maciel and his charism as a founder are to be judged by the fruits of this work, those fruits are most impressive indeed.” Weigel has since called on the Vatican to investigate the order.

CNN commentator William Bennett spoke at Legion gatherings and also said: “I am fortunate enough to know and trust the priests of the Legionaries of Christ. … The flourishing of the Legionaries is a cause for hope in a time of much darkness.” Former CNN religion correspondent Delia Gallagher spoke at a Legion fundraiser, and William Donohue, president of the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, defended Maciel in a letter to the Hartford Courant , after a 1997 article that exposed Maciel’s history of pedophilia.

Two Legion priests are TV news celebrities: Jonathan Morris on FOX, and Tom Williams, a theology professor at the Legion university in Rome, for NBC during Katie Couric’s coverage of the 2005 conclave and again with Couric at CBS.

Consequences came late

In April 2005, Ratzinger was elected pope. In 2006, as Benedict, he banished Maciel from ministry to a “life of prayer and penitence.” Maciel left Rome in disgrace, though the Legionaries mounted a defense of his innocence.

In the last week of January 2008, Maciel’s 21-year-old daughter and her mother reportedly traveled from Spain to the Miami hospital where he lay dying. That pleased him, while jarring several Legionaries; but the women did not go on to Mexico for the funeral. His three sons and their mother in Mexico avoided the funeral too. His chosen Legion successors gathered in his remote hometown, Cotija de la Paz, for burial at a family crypt, far from his previously designated tomb at Rome’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Basilica, which he built in the 1950s.

Besides Fichter, who has a parish in New Jersey, two priests still serving the church who left the Legion several years ago drew on detailed knowledge of Maciel’s financial practices in lengthy interviews, answering questions in continuing telephone calls and e-mails. These priests — and two priests in Rome who are members of the Legion — spoke on background, fearing repercussions to their careers were they to be identified.

This story also relies on international press accounts, works by Spanish and Mexican researchers, and attorneys who are piecing together information on Maciel’s financial strategy and his families.

NCR made repeated efforts to seek comment from the three cardinals who allegedly received substantial payments under Maciel’s auspices, by speaking with Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi on the telephone and via follow-up e-mails. Besides calls to the residences of the two cardinals in Rome, the paper made an extensive effort to contact now-Cardinal Dziwisz, in Krakow, Poland. Iowana Hoffman, a Polish journalist in New York, translated a letter with questions for the cardinal, faxed it to Dziwisz’s press secretary, but was told that the cardinal “does not have time for an interview.”

Sodano, the former secretary of state and now dean of the College of Cardinals, and Martínez Somalo, former papal chamberlain, did not respond to messages left with Lombardi. A receptionist who answered Sodano’s residential number said to call the Vatican. The woman answering Martínez Somalo’s phone, when asked in Spanish if he would speak with a journalist, said emphatically, ” No entrevista! ” — “No interview.”

Had Sodano, Martínez Somalo and Dziwisz responded, the cardinals might have answered one question that hovers over this baroque financial drama: How do Vatican officials decide what to report, and to whom, if they are given large sums of money? The Vatican has no constitution or statutes that would make such transactions illegal. But those familiar with the strategy say it was Maciel’s goal to insulate himself from the Vatican’s archaic system of secret tribunals by making friends with men in power.

For most of his life, it worked.

Making friends in the right places

The Vatican office with the greatest potential to derail Maciel’s career before 2001 — the year that Ratzinger persuaded John Paul to consolidate authority of abuse investigations in his office – was the Congregation for Religious, which oversaw religious orders such as the Dominicans, Franciscans and Legionaries, among many others.

According to two former Legionaries who spent years in Rome, Maciel paid for the renovation of the residence in Rome for the Argentine cardinal who was prefect of religious from 1976 to 1983, the late Eduardo Francisco Pironio. “That’s a pretty big resource,” explains one priest, who said the Legion’s work on the residence was expensive, and widely known at upper levels of the order. “Pironio got his arm twisted to sign the Legion constitution.”

The Legion constitution included the highly controversial Private Vows, by which each Legionary swore never to speak ill of Maciel, or the superiors, and to report to them anyone who uttered criticism. The vows basically rewarded spying as an expression of faith, and cemented the Legionaries’ lockstep obedience to the founder. The vows were Maciel’s way of deflecting scrutiny as a pedophile. But cardinals on the consultors’ board at Congregation for Religious balked on granting approval.

“Therefore, Maciel went to the pope through Msgr. Dziwisz,” said the priest. “Two weeks later Pironio signed it.”

Dziwisz was John Paul’s closest confidante, a Pole who had a bedroom in the private quarters of the Apostolic Palace. Maciel spent years cultivating Dziwisz’s support. Under Maciel, the Legion steered streams of money to Dziwisz in his function as gatekeeper for the pope’s private Masses in the Apostolic Palace. Attending Mass in the small chapel was a rare privilege for the occasional head of state, like British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his family. “Mass would start at 7 a.m., and there was always someone in attendance: laypeople, or priests, or groups of bishops,” Dziwisz wrote in a 2008 memoir, A Life With Karol: My Forty-Year Friendship With the Man Who Became Pope.

“When the guests came in (there were never more than 50),” Dziwisz wrote, “they often found the pope kneeling in prayer with his eyes closed, in a state of total abandonment, almost of ecstasy, completely unaware of who was entering the chapel. … For the laypeople, it was a great spiritual experience. The Holy Father attached extreme importance to the presence of the lay faithful.”

One of the ex-Legionaries in Rome told NCR that a Mexican family in 1997 gave Dziwisz $50,000 upon attending Mass. “We arranged things like that,” he said of his role as go-between. Did John Paul know about the funds? Only Dziwisz would know. Given the pope’s ascetic lifestyle and accounts of his charitable giving, the funds could have gone to a deserving cause. Dziwisz’s book says nothing of donations and contains no mention of Maciel or the Legion. The priest who arranged for the Mexican family to attend Mass worried, in hindsight, about the frequency with which Legionaries facilitated funds to Dziwisz.

“This happened all the time with Dziwisz,” said a second ex-Legionary, who was informed of the transactions.

Fr. Alvaro Corcuera, who would succeed Maciel as director general in 2004, and one or two other Legionaries “would go up to see Dziwisz on the third floor. They were welcomed. They were known within the household.”

Struggling to give context to the donations, this cleric continued: “You’re saying these laypeople are good and fervent, it’s good for them to meet the pope. The expression is opera carita — ‘We’re making an offering for your works of charity.’ That’s the way it’s done. In fact you don’t know where the money’s going.” He paused. “It’s an elegant way of giving a bribe.”

Recalling those events, he spoke of what made him leave the Legion. “I woke up and asked: Am I giving my life to serve God, or one man who had his problems? It was not worth consecrating myself to Maciel.”

What’s a bribe?

In terms of legal reality, does “an elegant way of giving a bribe” add up to bribery? The money from Maciel was given to heads of congregations in the early 1990s and the newspaper exposure of Maciel did not occur until 1997, and the canon law case in 1998.

Further, such exchanges are not considered bribes in the view of Nicholas Cafardi, a prominent canon lawyer and the dean emeritus of Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh. Cafardi, who has done work as a legal consultant for many bishops, responded to a general question about large donations to priests or church officials in the Vatican.

Under church law (canon 1302), a large financial gift to an official in Rome “would qualify as a pious cause,” explains Cafardi. He spoke in broad terms, saying that such funds should be reported to the cardinal-vicar for Rome. An expensive gift, like a car, need not be reported.

“That’s how I read the law. I know of no exceptions. Cardinals do have to report gifts for pious causes. If funds are given for the official’s personal charity, that is not a pious cause and need not be reported.”

Because the cardinals did not respond to interview requests, NCR has been unable to determine whether they reported to Vatican officials the money they allegedly received from the Legion.

“Maciel wanted to buy power,” said the priest who facilitated the Mexican family’s opera carita to Dziwisz. He did not use the word bribery, but in explaining why he left the Legion, morality was at issue. “It got to a breaking point for me [over] a culture of lying [within the order]. The superiors know they’re lying and they know that you know,” he said. “They lie about money, where it comes from, where it goes, how it’s given.”

When Martínez Somalo, a Spaniard, became head of the congregation overseeing religious in 1994, Maciel dispatched this priest to Martínez Somalo’s home. The young priest carried an envelope thick with cash. “I didn’t bat an eye,” he recalled. “I went up to his apartment, handed him the envelope, said goodbye. … It was a way of making friends, insuring certain help if it were needed, oiling the cogs.”

Martínez Somalo did not respond to NCR interview requests.

Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, wearing glasses at center left, is pictured with young Legion of Christ students in this photo believed to be taken in Mexico in the mid-1940s. (CNS photo)

Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, wearing glasses at center left, is pictured with young Legion of Christ students in this photo believed to be taken in Mexico in the mid-1940s. (CNS photo)

Glenn Favreau, a Legionary in Rome from 1990 to 1997, and today an attorney in Washington, D.C., recalled: “Martínez Somalo was talked about a lot in the Legion, always in the context of ‘our superior’ because he was our friend. Un amigo de Legion.” Favreau, who knew nothing of the donation to Martínez Somalo, continued: “There were cardinals who weren’t amigos. They wouldn’t call them enemies, but everyone knew who they were. Pio Laghi did not like the Legion.” Cardinal Laghi, former papal nuncio to the United States, was then prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education.

Martínez Somalo’s office took a new name: Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. But the job description stayed the same. From 1994 to 2004, the Spanish cardinal’s duties included investigating any complaints about religious orders or their leaders.

In the files of that congregation, according to several former Legionaries, sat letters that dated back many years, accusing Maciel of abusing seminarians. When the wrenching accounts of nine seminary-victims of Maciel made news in the 1997 Hartford Courant, Martínez Somalo did nothing. That was the reaction throughout the Roman curia.

John Paul named Martínez Somalo to the post of carmelango, or chamberlain, the official in charge of the conclave when a pope is elected.

Today, the cardinal in charge of the congregation that oversees religious orders is Franc Rodé. He lavished praise on Maciel, the Legion and its lay wing, Regnum Christi, for years.

One cardinal who rebuffed a Legion financial gift was Joseph Ratzinger.

In 1997 he gave a lecture on theology to Legionaries. When a Legionary handed him an envelope, saying it was for his charitable use, Ratzinger refused. “He was tough as nails in a very cordial way,” a witness said.

Maciel’s modus operandi

Maciel traveled incessantly, drawing funds from Legion centers in Mexico, Rome and the United States. Certain ex-Legionaries with knowledge of the order’s finances believe that Maciel constantly drew from Legion coffers to subsidize his families.

For years Maciel had Legion priests dole out envelopes with cash and donate gifts to officials in the curia. In the days leading up to Christmas, Legion seminarians spent hours packaging the baskets with expensive bottles of wine, rare brandy, and cured Spanish hams that alone cost upward of $1,000 each. Priests involved in the gifts and larger cash exchanges say that in hindsight they view Maciel’s strategy as akin to an insurance policy, to protect himself should he be exposed and to position the Legion as an elite presence in the workings of the Vatican.

Fichter, the former Legion member, is today pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Haworth, N.J. He has been a diocesan priest for a decade, and serves in the Newark archdiocese. He coordinated the Legion’s administrative office in Rome from February 1998 until October 2000.

“When Fr. Maciel would leave Rome it was my duty to supply him with $10,000 in cash — $5,000 in American dollars, and the other half in the currency of the country to which he was traveling,” explained Fichter. “I would be informed by one of his assistants that he was leaving and I would have to prepare the funds for him. I never questioned that he was not using it for good and noble purposes. It was a routine part of my job. He was so totally above reproach that I felt honored to have that role. He did not submit any receipts and I would have not dared to ask him for a receipt.”

Fichter was reluctant to be interviewed, expressing concern that his views be fully reflected. “As Legionaries our norms concerning the use of money were very restricted,” he began. “If I went on an outing I was given $20 and if I had a pizza I’d return the $15 to my superior with a receipt. The sad thing is that we were so naive. We were scrupulously trying to live our vow of poverty and yet never questioned [Maciel’s] own fidelity to the same.

“So many of my old classmates are still in the Legion and I feel that they are going through such a hard time right now. I don’t want to have my words misconstrued. … Maciel hoodwinked everyone. In hindsight I regret that I and so many others were so gullible. Thankfully, for me that was many years ago.”

Since earning his doctorate in sociology from Rutgers University, Fichter has worked as a research associate for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in Washington.

“I am very happy as a pastor and in the research work I am doing for the good of the church. At this stage of my life, having collaborated with the Vatican investigation of the Legion, I pray each day for those who are still Legionaries. If I can help them in any way I will.”

Justice delayed

After the ex-Legion victims filed a canonical case in 1998 against Maciel in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Sodano as secretary of state — essentially, the Vatican prime minister — pressured Ratzinger, as the congregation’s prefect, to halt the proceeding. As NCR reported in 2001, José Barba, a college professor in Mexico City and ex-Legionary who filed the 1998 case in Ratzinger’s office, learned from the canonist handling the case, Martha Wegan in Rome, of Sodano’s role.

“Sodano came over with his entire family, 200 of them, for a big meal when he was named cardinal,” recalled Favreau. “And we fed them all. When he became secretary of state there was another celebration. He’d come over for special events, like the groundbreaking with a golden shovel for the House of Higher Studies. And a dinner after that.”

The intervention of a high Vatican official in a tribunal case illustrates the fragile nature of the system, and in the Maciel case, how a guilty man escaped punishment for years.

“Cardinal Sodano was the cheerleader for the Legion,” said one of the ex-Legionaries. “He’d come give a talk at Christmas and they’d give him $10,000.” Another priest recalled a $5,000 donation to Sodano.

But in December 2004, with John Paul’s health deteriorating by the day, Ratzinger broke with Sodano and ordered a canon lawyer on his staff, Msgr. Charles Scicluna, to investigate. Two years later, as Benedict, he approved the order that Maciel abandon ministry for a “life of penitence and prayer.” Maciel had “more than 20 but less than 100 victims,” an unnamed Vatican official told NCR‘s John Allen at the time.

The congregation cited Maciel’s age in opting against a full trial.

An influential Vatican official told NCR that Sodano insisted on softening the language of the Vatican communiqué — to praise the Legion and its 60,000-member lay wing, Regnum Christi — despite the order’s nine-year Web site campaign denouncing the seminary victims. The Legion’s damage control rolled into a new phase with its statement that compared Maciel to Christ for refusing to defend himself, and accepting his “new cross” with “tranquility of conscience.”

Maciel left Rome, the scandal seemingly over. Internally, the Legion insisted to its members and followers that Maciel was innocent.

In 2009, a year after Maciel’s death, the Legion disclosed its surprise on discovering that he had a daughter. The news jolted the order and its lay arm, Regnum Christi. Yet in an organization built on a cult of personality, the long praise from John Paul suggested a legacy of virtue in Maciel. Legion officials scrambled to suppress skepticism.

Two Legion priests told NCR in July that seminarians in Rome were still being taught about Maciel’s virtuous life. “They are being brainwashed, as if nothing happened,” said a Legionary, sitting on a bench near Rome’s Tiber River.

Thanks to Sodano’s intervention, the order clung to a shaky defense in arguing that the Vatican never specifically said that Maciel abused anyone.

How much Legion officials knew about Maciel’s other life — the daughter with her mother in Madrid and three sons with their mother in Mexico — is a pivotal issue in the Vatican inquiry underway.

How much money did Maciel use to support his families? How much did he siphon off for other purposes behind the guise of a religious charity?

Behind these questions loom others about money in the Vatican. Are envelopes with thousands of dollars in cash given to cardinals when they say Mass, give talks or have dinner in a religious house mere donations? The Legion of Christ raises money as a charity. How does it record such outlays? Does anyone in the Vatican have access to Legion financial records?

When Dziwisz became a bishop in 1998, the Legion covered the costs of his reception at its complex in Rome. “Dziwisz helped the Legion in many ways,” said a priest who facilitated payments. “He convinced the pope to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Legion.”

In a book on Maciel published in Spain, journalist Alfonso Torres Robles calls an event on Jan. 3, 1991, “one of the most powerful demonstrations of strength by the Legion … at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, when John Paul II ordained 60 Legionaries into the priesthood, in the presence of 7,000 Regnum Christi members from different countries, 15 cardinals, 52 bishops and many millionaire benefactors.”

had the event filmed and a sequence used in a video the Legion sold until 2006. John Paul was a strategic image in Legion mass mailings and the video shown to potential donors when seminarians accompanied priests to their homes. The Legion no longer circulates the video.

The Legion has a presence in 23 countries, with dozens of elite prep schools, religious formation houses, and several universities.

Maciel’s strategy of buying influence unrolled over five decades.

Next: How the empire was built.

[NCR contributor Jason Berry is the author of Lead Us Not into Temptation and coauthor, with the late Gerald Renner, of Vows of Silence . Berry’s film documentary “Vows of Silence” explores the saga of the Vatican and Maciel. A grant from the Investigative Fund from The Nation Institute supported research for this article. www.JasonBerryAuthor.com]

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How Fr. Maciel built his empire

Mexico City: the flashpoint in the deepening Legion scandal

Apr. 12, 2010 By Jason Berry
In a file photo, Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado greets Pope John Paul II during a papal visit to Mexico City. (Notimex/Foto/Cortesia)

Second of Two Parts

Rome in 1946, following World War II, was in an economic shambles when an obscure young priest with deep pockets arrived seeking meetings with Vatican officials. The scion of a provincial Mexican aristocracy, Marcial Maciel Degollado had been a priest only two years, yet when a cameraman filmed his ordination he was already leading his own religious order, the Legion of Christ.

Maciel had gone to Rome by way of Madrid, Spain, where he sought scholarships the Franco government had offered for Latin American seminarians to study in Spain. The Spanish foreign minister, Alberto Martín Artajo, told him he needed Vatican approval for the “apostolic schoolboys” back home to qualify.

With funds from several of Mexico’s wealthiest families and its president, Miguel Alemán Valdés, he wrangled a meeting with Clemente Micara, a newly named cardinal and veteran papal diplomat. Micara, 67, was obsessed with rebuilding Rome. Maciel, tall and lean with fair brown hair and searchlight eyes, spoke no Italian, but Micara spoke Spanish. Maciel gave Micara $10,000, “a huge sum in a city reeling from the war,” said a knowledgeable priest.

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Related story, April 13: Commissioner likely to oversee Legion of Christ

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The Legion of Christ: A History, dictated by Maciel and published by a Legion imprint in 2004, doesn’t mention the payment to Micara, but the book says that Maciel traveled with “a confidential document and a sum of money” from Mexico’s papal nuncio for delivery to Cardinal Nicola Canali, the governor of the Vatican city-state. The two cardinals helped Maciel gain an audience with Pope Pius XII, who proved sympathetic. Maciel went back to Madrid with letters of approval. In August 1946, Maciel and 34 apostolic schoolboys from Mexico sailed to Spain.

Why would the Holy See, with established channels to transmit documents, entrust sensitive material to a priest without diplomatic passport? The other part of the story — “a sum of money” — was the shape of things to come.

Maciel forced all Legionaries to take private vows, never to speak ill of Maciel or any superiors, and to report to their superiors anyone who did. The vows ensured his cult of personality. Juan Vaca and seven other early victims of Maciel who first spoke publicly, in the 1997 Hartford Courant report by Gerald Renner and this writer, gave graphic accounts of how, in Spain and Rome in the 1950s, they watched Maciel inject himself with a morphine painkiller called dolantin, as the drug was called at the time. In 1956, a strung-out Maciel entered Salvator Mundi Hospital in Rome. Cardinal Valerio Valeri, a reed-like former diplomat and prefect for Congregation of Religious, was furious over letters from an older seminarian in Mexico City who had seen Maciel self-inject and worried about his overly affectionate behavior with boys. The priest who ran the Legion high school was also concerned about Maciel’s drug use and advances on youths. Valeri suspended Maciel and arranged for Carmelite priests to assume control of the Legion house. They began questioning the boys, who admitted years later how they lied to protect him, and themselves. “We didn’t know what to do,” Vaca, now a psychology professor in New York, reflected. “Our lives would have ended.” They feared the investigating priests would deem them sinners.

Valeri did not publicize Maciel’s suspension. Maciel traveled between Spain and Latin America, raising money for a big project underway in Rome: Our Lady of Guadalupe Basilica. Maciel got his break in 1959 when Pius XII died. Micara, by then the vicar of Rome, signed an order reinstating Maciel — something for which, in the interregnum between popes, he had no authority to do. Canon law puts official duties in abeyance in the interim. What were Valeri and other officials who were offended by Maciel to do? Expend what capital they had with the new pontiff, challenging Micara over a druggy priest with a vice for boys but cash lines to build a basilica? Maciel was redeemed by an illegitimate order from a cardinal to whom he had given $10,000 13 years before, according to a priest with access to Legion files. Micara, who had blessed the cornerstone, wanted infrastructure. Maciel had the money.

Like the captured U.S. soldiers brainwashed by Chinese communists in “The Manchurian Candidate,” a Cold War film, the seminarians from Mexico carried traumatic scars of Maciel’s psychological tyranny for decades. Unlike the movie characters, Maciel’s victims never forgot. In 1998, José Barba, a Mexico City college professor and former Legion seminarian with Vaca, went to Rome with another of the original victims and filed a canon law appeal in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, requesting a Vatican prosecution of Maciel.

Targeting women of wealth

Maciel’s financial strategy targeted the wives of wealthy men. A crucial supporter was Flora Barragán, the widow of an industrialist in Mexico’s steel-producing city of Monterrey. After Barragán’s death, her daughter told Barba that she had donated $50 million to the Legion. Barba, who teaches at the Autonomous Technical Institute of Mexico, said that he cannot verify the $50 million figure but said “Flora’s support was substantial.”

Barba entered the Legion in 1948, at 11, and left in 1962. He earned a doctorate at Harvard in Latin American literature.

“Maciel was in the habit of buying things in cash,” Barba told NCR during a March 4 interview in Mexico City.

Barba continued: “Maciel was 27 when he purchased the [first seminary] estate. In 1950 he began construction on the Instituto Cumbres, the first prep school, in Mexico City, the land for which Flora provided. That summer he also inaugurated Collegio Massimo in Rome. He was 30. In 1953 he tried to start construction of a college in Salamanca. I was there,” said Barba. “The bishop was sick; he failed to lay the cornerstone. He began the work in 1954 and completed it five years later. It was also in 1954 that he [Maciel] purchased the old spa in Ontenada, Spain, which had its own lake, for another seminary. Again, he paid cash. Fr. Gregorio López, a Legion priest, told me he delivered the money, wrapped in thin paper, to Leopoldo Corinez,” who represented the family that owned the property. “I do not know the exact amount.”

In 1958 he built a seminary in Salamanca, Spain, thanks to the largesse of Josefita Pérez Jiménez, the daughter of a former Venezuelan dictator.

Maciel reaped lasting dividends in Monterrey with the Garza-Sada families. The dynasty dates to 1890, when Isaac Garza and his brother-in-law, Francisco Sada, opened a brewery. Isaac’s sons, Eugenio and Roberto Garza Sada, both graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, built a bottling factory in 1943. As they branched into other industries, the Garza brothers founded a university, TEC — the Technical Institute of Superior Studies in Monterrey.

Maciel launched private schools in Monterrey, one for boys, one for girls. He exported to America a model for prep schools to attract well-heeled families who would join Regnum Christi, which organized study groups to discuss Maciel’s letters. Lay celibates, the highest level of Regnum Christi members, live in communities and work relentlessly on fundraising. The Web site www.Life-after-rc.com, run by a former Regnum Christi leader, documents the cult-like dynamics with messages of people who have lost loved ones to “the Movement.”

Monterrey was Maciel’s financial springboard. After Dionisio Garza died in 1991, his wife and several of his children donated to the Legion. Media reports have likened the Garza family wealth to that of the Rockefellers.

“One of my aunts gave Maciel a house,” said Roberta Garza, 44, the youngest of the eight siblings, and editor of Milenio newspaper’s magazine in Mexico City. In a March 2 interview in Mexico, she described her late father as “a conservative Victorian gentleman, incredibly well loved. Our family rarely watched TV. We came together after dinner and we talked.”

After the patriarch’s death, Maciel courted the widow for support. “My mother gave him jewels and a lot of money,” said Roberta Garza. Her mother, now quite aged, “never learned about his kids. He targeted women in Mexico of a certain class who were not allowed to work. I had to fight to go to college. For cultured women who were bored, Maciel offered a sense of purpose.”

Roberta Garza studied as a boarder at Catholic schools in France and Germany, reading voraciously, “developing a critical mind that got me into trouble back in Monterrey.” She returned in 1980 for a Legion high school but found it “rigid, highly traditional, and not analytical. One of my in-laws had a daughter who was not learning English. She complained to the Legionary priest. He actually told her: ‘The final judgment will not be in English.’

“They were grooming us for Regnum Christi — the Movement. If your family had money, power, influence, they wanted you. They kept telling me, ‘God gave you everything, you must give back by fighting the forces of evil.’ … Their whole discourse was this paradise of moral rectitude. After France, where I could think freely, I was crying every night, thinking this is my family, my home, I don’t want to be here. I almost cracked up.”

Two of her siblings joined the Movement. Paulina, now in her 50s, is a Regnum Christi consecrated woman in Rome. A brother, Fr. Luis Garza Medina, graduated from Stanford University in California in 1978 with a degree in industrial engineering and entered the Legion. At 32 he became vicar general, the second highest position. Through the two siblings, Maciel secured a continuing flow of money from the family. Fr. Garza donated $3 million of his inheritance to the Legion, according to a colleague at the time. In an e-mail exchange, Fr. Garza would neither confirm nor deny the amount or the donation.

Today, the Garza family is splintered. “One of my brothers hates the Legion more than I do,” said Roberta Garza, who abandoned religion after college.

The eldest sibling, Dionisio Garza Medina — paternal namesake and CEO of Alfa, the multinational founded by the grandfather — told The Wall Street Journal: “The Legion is the only Mexican multinational in the world of religion.”

When the Garza siblings gather as a family, they use good manners to avoid discussing the Legion. At Christmas 2009, she said, Luis hung his head, and to Roberta seemed deeply depressed.

In an exchange of several e-mails, Fr. Garza refused to answer questions.

Flashpoint of the scandal

Mexico City has become the flashpoint in the deepening Legion scandal. The catalyst in both the media coverage and the legal saga is attorney José Bonilla.

The revolution in his life began in 2006 when he sued the Legion for the sexual abuse of his 5-year-old son by a lay teacher at the Legion’s Oxford School in Mexico City. The boy told his mother that a male teacher had bitten his penis. After getting the child medical care, Bonilla and his wife, Lisset Aldrete, also a lawyer, met with the principal. He said the principal took no action. They filed criminal charges against the teacher, Joaquín Francisco Mondragón Rebollo, who disappeared and is a fugitive from justice. The family has won initial rounds in a civil case against the Legion school, said Bonilla.

Bonilla, 50, earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from the Jesuit-run Ibero-American University in Mexico City. Sitting in a sun-dappled parlor, he spoke tenderly of his child (the youngest of five). Bonilla’s blog — conlajusticia.wordpress.com — is a moral excavation of the Legion. “The blog,” he said, “is how Raúl found me.”

Raúl — José Raúl González Lara, 29, the Maciel middle son — asked Bonilla for legal help against the Legion. After his father’s death, priests at Anáhuac, the Legion’s flagship university in Mexico City, guided Raúl to a trust account Maciel supposedly established for the family, but it was empty, said Bonilla.

“The Legion gave Raúl a copy of a trust they told him was taken away from Norma [the daughter in Spain],” said Bonilla. He believes the Legion officials in Mexico were trying to make the half-siblings get into a legal conflict over Maciel’s estate. Raúl’s efforts for a family settlement failed.

On March 3, the family did a one-hour interview on MVS Radio with Carmen Aristegui, who also hosts a CNN Mexico newsmaker show. Aristegui won a Columbia University 2008 Maria Moors Cabot Prize. (Disclosure: Aristegui did the Spanish narration for my film “Vows of Silence.”) The radio program, simulcast on video and posted on YouTube, made international news. Raúl; his mother, Blanca Lara Gutiérrez; and his brother, Omar, 33, spoke traumatically of life with Maciel.

Bonilla’s interview adds additional details of the family history.

In 1977, Blanca, 19, was working in Tijuana as a domestic when she met “Raúl Rivas,” 57, a self-described widower and international detective for oil companies. Despite his travels, he wooed her by buying a house in Cuernavaca, a colonial town outside Mexico City. Though they didn’t marry, he became adoptive father of her 3-year-old son, Omar, from a previous relationship. Bonilla said that the adoption paper and the birth certificates for their natural sons, Raúl, and Christian, now 17, are “legally a mess. Maciel made up his name and gave it to the younger boys.” He was away long stretches as the boys grew. But Blanca Gutiérrez, who grew up poor, had a house and income. “I loved him very much,” she told Aristegui. “I never suspected.”

On the program, Raúl bristled: “When I was 7 years old, I was lying down with him like any boy, any son with his father. He pulled down my pants and tried to rape me.”

Self-effacing in Cuernavaca, careful to not be photographed, “Rivas” began taking Omar and Raúl on trips to Europe, molesting them between the ages of 8 and 14. “As teenagers they began pushing him off,” said Bonilla.

A few years after buying the house for Blanca, Maciel met Norma Hilda Baños, in Acapulco. In 1987, age 26, she had his child, also named Norma Hilda. What little is known of them comes from Spanish reporters Idoia Sota and José M. Vidal, who located them in an upscale Madrid apartment building, eliciting brief comments for an article last year in El Mundo. “When I met this man I was underaged,” the mother, Norma Hilda Baños, identified as 48, is quoted. “Neither my daughter nor I knew who this man really was until the very end.” The daughter “was abused by her father, Maciel,” the mother is quoted in El Mundo. “She suffers from severe trauma from her childhood and I don’t believe she is ever going to get over it.”

The article said that Maciel left Baños “two homes in her name in the exclusive Madrid building where she lives and three [other] places, all valued at about 2 million euros.”

According to the Spanish reporters, Maciel also had three children with another Mexican woman, who now lives in Switzerland, which would make six natural children by three women, and the adoptive Omar as a seventh.

When Raúl was 6, Maciel sent him to boarding school in Ireland for several years. In 1991, when Raúl was 10 and Norma 4, Maciel took them to the Vatican; they received Communion from Pope John Paul II, according to Bonilla. His Web site has a photograph of the two children holding hands with a Swiss Guard. Many priests and bishops have taken children to meet the pope. More interesting is how Maciel got them to receive Communion. Presenting his children to John Paul suggests a reckless cynicism in Maciel’s behavior, gambling with his public image as a priest by showcasing the progeny of his private life, putting both of his lives on simultaneous display.

In America the major media ignored the Feb. 23, 1997, Courant investigation until the 2002 Boston scandal. But in Mexico, a daily paper ran a series and a cable TV station did a documentary. In spring 1997, Maciel called Raúl, 16, and told him to buy up all available copies of Contenido magazine and get rid of them. On the cover, Raúl saw his father in a Roman collar with a different name. The older boys refused to let Christian, 4, be alone with their father. As Maciel became more distant, he still supported them financially, said Bonilla.

About that time, Maciel moved Norma and 10-year-old Normita to Spain. Within a year or so, he sent Raúl to live with them for several months as the teenage boy saw a pyschotherapist for issues caused by incest and discovery of his father-as-Father.

Both families had to keep the secrets for financial survival.

Several years ago, said attorney Bonilla, Normita, the daughter, studied at Anáhuac University in Mexico City. “The Legion knew who she was,” insisted Bonilla.

“I don’t know whether that’s true or not,” said Legion spokesman Jim Fair. “We wouldn’t comment on former students, if they were former students. You’d have to get that from her.”

The day after the Rivas family’s radio interview, the Legion released a Jan. 5 letter that rebuffed Raúl’s demand for $26 million, for which he had reputedly promised silence in return. Bonilla withdrew as legal counsel, citing professional ethics over a client bargaining silence for money. He has 70 other clients who were abused or have children who were abused, not just by religious figures. As the Legion engages in a financial chess game with Raúl, his demand for the family’s compensation has become a Vatican issue. In November, Bonilla and the family met with Bishop Ricardo Watty, the Mexican visitator in the Legion investigation. “I have met with Watty twice,” Bonilla told NCR. “He was very concerned about the children not having support. He tried to bring the parties together to resolve this. I saw him as having instructions from the pope or [Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio] Bertone to solve the problem.”

Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, wearing glasses at center left, is pictured with young Legion of Christ students in this photo believed to be taken in Mexico in the mid-1940s. (CNS photo)Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, wearing glasses at center left, is pictured with young Legion of Christ students in this photo believed to be taken in Mexico in the mid-1940s. (CNS photo)
Sodano, the patron in Rome

The centerpiece of Maciel’s plan to secure his legacy in Rome was the Legion’s university, Regina Apostolorum, where Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, taught courses. She has been an advisor to the Legion, which has expanded in America with the University of Sacramento in California.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state from 1990 to 2006, was a pivotal figure in the university’s growth in Rome.

Maciel and Sodano forged a friendship in Chile in the 1980s during the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. The Legion needed Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez’s permission to function. Haunted by the regime’s torturing and abducting of people, Silva had a tense relationship with Sodano, who as papal nuncio appeared on TV in support of Pinochet. Several Chilean bishops implored Silva not to admit Maciel’s group, which had a tainted reputation as “millonarios de Cristo” for their obsessions with fundraising. “In a society as polarized as Chile,” Andrea Insunza and Javier Ortega wrote in a book on the Legion in Chile, “the Legionaries found a key ally: the apostolic nuncio, Angelo Sodano.” Silva approved the Legionaries’ presence in Chile.

Back to Rome in 1989, Sodano, in preparing to become secretary of state, took English lessons at a Legion center in Dublin, Ireland. He vacationed at a Legion villa in Southern Italy. An honored guest at Legion dinners and banquets, Sodano became Maciel’s biggest supporter. Glenn Favreau, a Washington, D.C., attorney and former Legionary in Rome, said: “Sodano intervened with Italian officials to get zoning variances to build the university” on a wooded plateau of western Rome. Maciel hired Sodano’s nephew, Andrea Sodano, as a building consultant. Pontificial Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum is the name of the complex.

But Legionaries overseeing the project complained to Maciel that Andrea Sodano’s work was late and poorly done; they were reluctant to pay his invoices. To them, Maciel yelled: “Pay him! You pay him!”

Andrea Sodano was paid.

In 2008, a flashy Italian businessman, Raffaello Follieri, was indicted in New York on fraud and money-laundering charges for his business that bought shuttered church properties and parishes for commercial resale. Andrea Sodano was Follieri Group’s vice president. Cardinal Sodano attended the company’s 2004 launch party in New York, accorded to press reports. As NCR reported March 3, 2006, the firm’s literature trumpeted its “deep commitment to the Catholic church and its long-standing relationship with senior members of the Vatican hierarchy.”

After the company secured major backing from billionaire Ron Burkle’s Yucaipa development company, Follieri spent wildly on his jet-set romance with movie star Anne Hathaway. As the Follieri-Yucaipa partnership found properties, Follieri sent payments to Andrea Sodano’s office in Italy by bank wire transfer.

Documents obtained by the FBI show that Follieri fabricated backdated invoices from Sodano to justify a two-month flurry of payments in 2005 that Follieri had already obtained from the investors. These included: $75,000 on Aug. 22, for “Engineering Services”; a Sept. 12 invoice for $15,000 for work in Atlantic City, N.J., and $80,000 in Orland Park in the Chicago archdiocese; Oct. 21, for $70,000 in Canyon City (no state given in the invoice); another $50,000 for Orland Park; and $75,000 for unspecified “Engineering Services,” making a tidy $225,000 net on that single day. None of the single-page invoices has a paragraph on work done.

In the weekly conference calls with Burkle’s company, Follieri escalated his request for funds to pay Sodano, stressing that the Vatican needed the engineering reports in order to grant approval for the sales of church property. Yucaipa paid $800,000 to that end, with Follieri providing fabricated, backdated invoices to document payments purportedly made to Andrea Sodano.

On March 8, 2006 — two months before Maciel was banished from the priesthood — Cardinal Sodano sent a letter of complaint to Follieri. “I feel it is my duty to tell you how perturbed I am,” he wrote, “to hear that your company continues to present itself as having ties to ‘the Vatican,’ due to the fact that my nephew, Andrea, has agreed on some occasion to provide you with professional consulting services. I do not know how this distressing misunderstanding could have occurred, but it is necessary now to avoid such confusion in the future. I do, therefore, appeal to your sensibility to be careful with respect to this matter. I shall accordingly inform my nephew Andrea as well as anyone else who has asked me for information regarding your firm. I take this opportunity to send you my regards.”

The letter came just after NCR‘s report by Joe Feuerherd that quoted an unnamed religious order official on Follieri Group saying, “This thing smells.”

As Andrea Sodano was promoting the business, Cardinal Sodano — having lent his sacred office to handshakes and chatting up potential backers at the Follieri Group’s launch — began backpedaling. Follieri had begun bragging to potential investors that he was the chief financial officer of the Vatican. Nevertheless, four months after the cardinal’s letter, Raffaello and Andrea Sodano flew to Latin America on a property-scouting trip. Follieri handed a check for $25,000 to one archbishop and a check for $85,000 to another archbishop. “The recipients of these donations did not know that Follieri had stolen the money to give to them,” states an FBI sentencing memorandum on the Follieri case.

In spring of 2007, Burkle wanted to see the engineering reports. Follieri made a secretary stay up all night writing the reports, which he backdated and disgorged to Burkle’s people.

“The reports were in Italian,” explains FBI agent Theodore Cacioppi. “Each one was about two to five pages long. None of them contained any schematics, technical drawings, diagrams, or anything that appeared to relate to engineering.” The reports “were almost worthless, did not reflect any engineering work, and were certainly not worth over $800,000.”

Burkle’s Yucaipo Companies had its own investors, notably the New York State Common Retirement Fund, the California Teachers’ Retirement Fund and California Public Employees’ Retirement Fund. Yucaipo sued Follieri for $1.3 million. Follieri scrambled to repay the partnership, but was indicted.

On Oct. 23, 2008, he pleaded guilty to 14 counts of wire fraud, money-laundering and conspiracy, and is now serving 54 months in a federal prison.

“We believe Studio Sodano [Andrea’s corporate name] took in fraudulently earned money,” stated Cacioppi. “We considered these people unindicted co-conspirators.”

Cacioppi continued, “We did not need to put those people on the stand. We did get intimations from the State Department that they were not inclined to talk with us. As a matter of resource allocation it was not worth trying to get them.”

Andrea Sodano was safely back in Italy at the time of Follieri’s arrest. The government document that accuses him of receiving payments also says that the Vatican itself received “donations” from Follieri’s scam, an assertion that raises a question about Cardinal Sodano’s judgment. What explains his trust in a flimflam man like Follieri?

The government sentencing memorandum on Follieri by the U.S. Attorney, Southern District of New York, further explained: “Follieri created the false impressions that he had ties to the Vatican, which enabled him to obtain church properties at below-market values, through his relationship with Andrea Sodano, the nephew (“Nephew”) of the then-Secretary of State of the Vatican Cardinal Angelo Sodano … and making unauthorized donations to the Vatican with investor money. Follieri misused investor funds to pay the Nephew for ‘engineering’ services that the Nephew never performed so that the Nephew could travel with Follieri when visiting church officials and help Follieri obtain access to the grounds of the Vatican. It was through this connection that Follieri was able to attend one of the Pope’s services and, along with many others, get his picture taken with the Pope … show the private gardens of the Vatican to Follieri’s friends and associates, and arrange for guided tours of a museum at the Vatican.”

The sentencing memorandum continues: “Follieri also falsely represented that he needed over $800,000 to pay for the engineering reports prepared by the Nephew. Follieri claimed that the Vatican needed to review these engineering reports before Vatican could make any decision about whether to sell the properties to Follieri.”

While Follieri found a friend in Andrea Sodano, Maciel had found one in Andrea’s uncle, the cardinal. But Maciel’s resource allocation ran into problems with the building of the university, Regina Apostolorum. He was hungry for Vatican approval for the highest level of recognition as a full pontifical academy, to put the freshly minted university on equal footing with the much older Lateran and Gregorian universities in Rome. To secure that standing, sources told NCR, the Legion in 1999 offered a Mercedes Benz to the late Cardinal Pio Laghi, who was prefect of Congregation for Catholic Education (and former papal ambassador to the United States). Appalled, Laghi rejected the offer, according to a priest who witnessed the exchange.

Laghi’s successor, Polish Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, refused the authorization too. Cardinal Sodano secured a status below the prestigious level Maciel and the Legion had sought.

Maciel died in a surreal drama where his life pieces converged with shuddering fall. In late January 2008, he was in a hospital in Miami, according to a Jan. 31, 2010 report by reporters Sota and Vidal of El Mundo. Although the article (available in English on exlcblog.com) is layered in opinion about Maciel’s character, it provides a detailed look at the crisis he created for his followers. In the hospital gathered Alvaro Corcuera, Maciel’s successor as director general; the Legion’s general secretary, Evarista Sada; and numerous other associates. Maciel reportedly refused to make a confession, stirring such concerns that someone summoned an exorcist, though the article does not describe a ritual. The men around Maciel were jarred when two women appeared: Norma the mother, and Normita, 23. At that point, Maciel reportedly said of the Normas: “I want to stay with them.”

The El Mundo article continues:

The Legionary priests, alarmed by Maciel’s attitude, called Rome. [Fr.] Luis Garza knew right away that this was a grave problem. He consulted with the highest authority, Alvaro Corcuera, and then hopped on the first plane to Miami and went directly to the hospital.[Garza’s] indignation could be read on his face. He faced the once-powerful founder and threatened him: “I will give you two hours to come with us or I will call all the press and the whole world will find out who you really are.” And Maciel let his arm be twisted.

After the priests got Maciel to a Legion house in Jacksonville, Fla., he reportedly grew belligerent when Corcuero tried to anoint him, yelling, “I said no!” The article says Maciel refused to make a final confession, and states flatly that he “did not believe in God’s pardon.”

That is an opinion that Maciel’s sordid life might well support, but for which, in fact, we have no proof. In announcing his ascent to heaven, immediately following Maciel’s 2008 death, the Legion high command took propaganda to a level beyond category.

Luis Garza, in a March 15, 2010, e-mail response to an NCR request for comment on the El Mundo article, replied as follows: “I understand that you have many questions. But as I said in my earlier mail, at this point in time with the situation as it is, there really isn’t more I can provide. I am sorry.

“I will continue to pray for all who suffered from Fr. Maciel’s actions. And I hope you and your readers will keep us in their prayers. I pray for you and your mission as a journalist.”

[Jason Berry is author of Lead Us Not into Temptation and other books. His film Vows of Silence explores the Vatican investigation of Maciel. An investigative grant from The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute supported research for this article. www.VowsofSilenceFilm.com.]

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