Pope’s Legion delegate warns of ‘shipwreck’

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28 October 2010


VATICAN CITY (AP) — The papal official running the disgraced Legionaries of Christ has warned that the conservative order faces “certain shipwreck” unless its superiors and members work together to change course following revelations that their founder led a double life. 

Archbishop Velasio De Paolis also said in a letter to the Legion that it will take three years or more to reform the order, dashing the hopes of Legion superiors who had wanted a quick-fix turnaround. At the same time, though, he made clear that the Legion was still viable as an order and suggested that, once reformed, it could have a role in the pope’s new efforts to revitalize Christianity where it’s on the wane. 

Pope Benedict XVI named De Paolis to take charge of the Legion after an eight-month Vatican investigation determined it needed to be thoroughly “purified” to purge it of the influence of its late founder, the Rev. Marciel Maciel

Maciel founded the Legion in 1941 in Mexico and it became one of the wealthiest and fastest growing orders in the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II admired the Legion for its orthodoxy and ability to attract priests and money from wealthy patrons despite long-standing allegations that Maciel was a pedophile and drug addict. 

The Legion revealed in February 2009 that Maciel had fathered a child; it later admitted that decades-old accusations that he had sexually abused seminarians were true and that he had fathered at least two other children. 

The revelations have thrown the Legion into chaos, in part because its members had revered Maciel as a living saint, and prompted questions about what the current leadership knew about his misdeeds and when. 

Over the past year, several prominent Legion priests have left the order to become diocesan priests and dozens of consecrated members of the Legion’s lay branch, Regnum Christi, have quit. Several have spoken about the deception and spiritual manipulation they say they endured in a cult-like movement that until recently had the unquestioning blessing of Rome. 

De Paolis wrote a letter to current Legion priests and consecrated members last week, telling them that the process of reform was under way now that his team of canon lawyers and experts was in place. 

He hinted at a power play with the current Legion leadership, detailing what they are supposed to be doing to help the Legion renew itself rather than digging in and resisting change. 

“If we are united and respectful of each other as we move forward the journey will be swift and sure, but it will be certain shipwreck to let ourselves get caught up in the desire to win out and impose our own ideas,” he warned. 

Veteran Vatican watcher Sandro Magister has written that the Legion’s vicar general Luis Garza Medina declined De Paolis’ request to give up some of his duties last month. Benedict recently announced De Paolis would be made a cardinal next month, giving him that much more authority. 

At the same time, De Paolis noted that the superiors had an “extremely important” job to implement the necessary changes despite lingering distrust among the rank and file about what they may or may not have known about Maciel. 

“I ardently invite you to set aside all suspicion and distrust, and work concretely and positively for the good of the Legion, without lingering still on the past or feeding divisions,” he wrote, suggesting that for now the question of who knew what and when remain unanswered. 

Jim Fair, the Legion’s communications director, said Wednesday that any Legionary would resign his position if asked to by De Paolis. Fair also stressed the positive elements of the letter, noting “its clear statements of the future of the Legion.” 

For the first time, De Paolis hinted at how the Legion would deal with Maciel’s victims, saying a commission would likely be formed to “approach those who in some way put forward claims against the Legion.” 

Already, one of Maciel’s Mexican-born sons has filed a lawsuit against the Legion alleging his father sexually abused him; he had previously asked the Legion for $26 million to keep quiet. In Rhode Island, the family of a wealthy widow who gave millions to the Legion in life and in death is contesting her will, alleging she never would have given her fortune away had she known the truth about Maciel. 

Another commission is expected to look into the Legion’s financial matters; some reports estimate the Legion’s assets at euro25 billion although the Legion has said those figures are wildly inaccurate. 

De Paolis acknowledged the toll the scandal has taken, noting that some priests have left for dioceses, ordinations are down and that other current Legion priests have “let themselves get caught in this whirlpool of public opinion and have desisted in their efforts to promote vocations.” 

In its May denunciation of Maciel, the Vatican said the Legion needed to review how authority was exercised in the order to ensure it respected the consciences of its members amid charges that superiors had unchecked ability to manipulate underlings. The Vatican also said the order’s essential spirit — what makes it unique from other orders — had to be redefined. 

Despite such fundamental problems, De Paolis noted the Legion had been approved by the church, that the pope had expressed his confidence in it as a religious order by naming him to carry forward, and that the Legion could be a vital new force in Benedict’s effort to revive the faith in an increasingly secular Europe. 

Such facts give hope for a positive outcome of the reform process, De Paolis said. 

“The shock caused by the founder’s actions had tremendous impact, on a scale capable of destroying the congregation itself, as many in fact predicted,” he wrote. “Yet it not only survives, but is almost intact in its vitality.”

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