Scandals may dent wealthy Catholic order’s funding

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Reuters

Mon Jun 14, 2010 7:47pm EDT
Mica Rosenberg and Anahi Rama
MEXICO CITY

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The Legionaries of Christ, a conservative Roman Catholic order that once had absolute and high-level Vatican support, has been disgraced by revelations its charismatic Mexican founder led a double life that included abusing young boys and fathering children.

Now it faces the prospect of a second serious setback as the wealthy donors who helped build it into an influential movement in recent decades consider whether to go on contributing to such a shamed organization.

Combined with damning findings from a Vatican probe this month, the future of the order is in doubt

Osvaldo Moreno, a spokesman for the Legion, said it was too soon to say if donations were dropping off and no significant change had been detected. But he admitted the global media attention on the seedy details of founder Father Marcial Maciel’s sexual escapades was not helping.

“We’ve been on the front pages of newspapers, Internet sites, TV shows, radio,” he said. “It’s surprising, terrible.”

Leaders of the order in March apologized “to all those who have been affected, wounded, or scandalized by the reprehensible actions of our founder.”

At its peak the Legion, present across the world and founded in 1941, amassed a fortune and operated a yearly budget of some $650 million, but Catholic scholars say some disillusioned patrons are already snapping shut their checkbooks.

“There will be a significant reduction (in money raised) and competitors like the Opus Dei will benefit,” Fernando M. Gonzalez, who has written books on Maciel and is one of the leading scholars on the Legion, told Reuters. Opus Dei is another conservative Catholic order.

Many followers of the Legion were disgusted when the Vatican concluded an exhaustive investigation in May by saying that Maciel — a revered figure who died in 2008 aged 87 and still a priest — was “devoid of scruple” and guilty of “immoral behavior … (that) resulted in actual crimes.”

Despite years of allegations, Maciel was spared official condemnation until 2006 when Pope Benedict obligated him to retire to a life of “prayer and penitence.”

“He was like a small God to us. Have you seen people talking to the Pope and they cry or almost faint? It was the same with Father Maciel,” said a woman who as a teenager lived in a Legion-run girls’ boarding school on the edge of Mexico City.

“If I was still there, I would feel tricked — dedicating my life to following rules that the institution itself doesn’t respect,” she told Reuters, asking not to be quoted by name for fear of offending friends who are still part of the movement.

DELICATE LINE

Founded by Maciel when he was in his early 20s, the Legion is a priestly order that runs private Catholic schools and charitable organizations in 22 countries via its network of 800 priests and 2,600 seminarians. The order’s lay movement, known as Regnum Christi, has around 75,000 members.

The order ran schools to cultivate “consecrated” men and women who would dedicate themselves to a monastic life.

Pupils followed a military-style discipline, took vows of silence, swore off physical contact and limited visits with friends and family. High tuition and regular donations were said to go to support charity and low-cost schools for the poor.

As head of the Legion, Maciel was close to Pope John Paul II, who once described him as an “efficacious guide to youth.”

The Vatican inquiry into Maciel’s double life, revelations of which have been leaking out for years, comes as the Church is in its worst crisis in decades over a rash of child sex abuse cases involving Catholic priests around the world.

The Vatican has called for the Legion to be re-founded, but it is not clear what that will mean.

For now, Church officials must walk a delicate line, distancing themselves from Maciel’s legacy while trying not to alienate the deep pockets that have supported the Legion for years. Prominent backers have included the owners of Mexican breadmaker Bimbo and Carlos Slim, the telecoms magnate listed by Forbes as the world’s richest man.

In its heyday, the Legion counted benefactors like Flora Barragan de Garza, the widow of a wealthy Monterrey tycoon who reportedly donated $50 million over her lifetime. It is unclear if the group will still be able to find such loyal patrons.

Maciel helped one wealthy Mexican family funnel $50,000 to a close confidant of the Pope so they could attend private mass with the Pontiff, according to an investigation in the National Catholic Reporter. The now-disgraced priest regularly doled out envelopes of cash and expensive gifts to well-placed church officials, the investigation said.

“The Legion contributed a huge amount to the Vatican. To go against them … is like economic suicide,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said at least one major donor in the industrial northern city of Monterrey — a stronghold of well-off Legion supporters — has stopped giving, and enrollment at a Legion school in Guadalajara, a pious colonial city in western Mexico, has fallen as a result of the scandals.

MONEY FOR SILENCE

One of the lewdest revelations about Maciel surfaced in March, when a Mexican woman, Blanca Gonzalez, told a radio program that she had two sons with Maciel.

She said that when she was 19 and met the 56-year-old priest, he lied about his identity, alternately claiming he was an oil executive, a private detective and a CIA agent.

Her son with Maciel, Raul Gonzalez, and another son from a previous marriage told the same radio program he sexually abused them over a period of eight years.

“The first time was when I was 7 years old. I was sleeping in the bed with him, like any child might do at that age, and he pulled down my underpants and tried to rape me,” Raul Gonzalez said.

Legion officials acknowledged they were contacted by Raul. They say he promised to keep quiet about his story if the order paid him $26 million. But the Legion refused.

The radio program aired without protest and a flurry of news articles followed — in sharp contrast to the reaction from Maciel’s supporters to a 1997 TV broadcast of interviews with several men who claimed the priest abused them as young seminarians in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.

The men told a small Mexican television station that Maciel would call them to his bedroom and force them to mutually masturbate to ease what he said was debilitating pain. The men have also said the priest was addicted to morphine-like drugs.

The TV station’s owner Javier Moreno has often said that powerful supporters of Maciel, including government officials, tried to pressure him to pull the show. Some canceled valuable advertising campaigns when he went ahead and ran it.

In a recent interview with Reuters, Moreno said Slim was among those who complained about the program. “Carlos Slim was one of the people closest to Father Maciel,” Moreno said, detailing the hard push from the Legion’s powerful followers to pull the plug on the program.

“They asked everyone in the world to intervene.”

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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