In this Nov. 30, 2004 file photo, Pope John Paul II gives his blessing to late father Marcial Maciel, founder of Legion of Christ.
In this Nov. 30, 2004 file photo, Pope John Paul II gives his blessing to late father Marcial Maciel, founder of Legion of Christ. Plinio Lepri/AP/File
For years, Father Marcial Maciel evaded numerous accusations of sexual abuse — even as he built a rich and powerful order of the Catholic Church. Maciel's Legion of Christ now controls assets worth billions of dollars. A new investigative report explores whether Maciel's ability to bring in money influenced his treatment by the Vatican.
After Maciel died in 2008, the Legion admitted that Maciel fathered a daughter. Several men came forward saying they were his sons. But that was overshadowed by years of reports — ignored by the Vatican — that Father Maciel sexually abused young seminarians.
Investigative journalist Jason Berry's series on Father Maciel in the National Catholic Reporter suggests that his ability to raise money may have played a role in keeping Maciel in the priesthood, despite accusations made against him.
"He seems to have had this militant sense of spirituality, and he was a genius at fundraising," Berry says. "From the earliest years of his involvement with high church officials, he always had money, lots of it."
But Maciel's trouble in the church began early. Berry lists an addiction to morphine and accusations of making sexual advances at young seminarians as early as 1956.
"The Vatican did an investigation, suspended him — but then reinstated him in 1959," Berry says.
And in three episodes from 1976 to 1989, former Legion priest Juan Vaca accused Maciel of abuse in detailed reports he sent to the Vatican, Berry says. The Vatican did not take any action.
In his article, Berry says that Maciel's fundraising skills and his connections at the Vatican fed off one another.
"We know that wealthy families who gave money to the Legion of Christ had a pipeline, frankly, to go to private masses said by Pope John Paul II in the Apostolic Palace," Berry says.
According to Berry, two of Maciel's most powerful Vatican allies were Monseigneur Dziwisz, a former organizer of papal masses who is now a cardinal; and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's secretary of state at the time. Berry says that he has been told that both priests received thousands of dollars in donations from Maciel.
"It really reminds one of Tammany Hall, or the Chicago political machine 30 or 40 years ago ... Needless to say, all of this was a way of buying influence and protection for Father Maciel."
And that influence helped to shield Maciel from his accusers, Berry says. But in 2006, Pope Benedict — who had investigated Maciel as a cardinal — dismissed him from ministry.
In doing so, Benedict ordered that Maciel go on to lead "a life of prayer and penitence."
In Berry's view, Maciel's punishment wasn't very harsh — but at least it acknowledged the accusations against the priest.
"I think we have to credit the pope with finally breaking ranks with Cardinal Sodano," he says.