Latino Catholics Confronted By Sting Of Sex Abuse Scandal

The Legionaries of Christ made headlines this week as Pope Benedict imposed martial law on the Catholic religious order and announced plans to revamp the group's spirituality and culture. Nearly thirteen years ago, the order's founder was accused of a number of sexual abuses in Mexico. Host Michel Martin speaks with Jason Berry, who recently wrote about the Legion of Christ for The National Catholic Reporter, and David Gibson, a religion writer for Politics Daily. They discuss the impact these events have on the Hispanic Catholic community.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

Now it's time for Faith Matters. That's our weekly conversation, where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality.

This week, Pope Benedict announced that the Vatican has ordered an overhaul of the Legion of Christ. That's a religious order that operates throughout the world but originated in Mexico.

In extremely blunt terms, the Vatican communique said the founder of the order, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado conducted a private life, quote, "without scruples or authentic religious sentiment," unquote. The statement comes some 13 years after Father Maciel was first accused of a number of sexual abuses in his native Mexico, including fathering a child out of wedlock and sexually abusing former members of the order.

For many in Latin America, the Legionaries of Christ are the faces of the Catholic Church. And the scandal in this week's announcement have been widely covered by Spanish language media in the United States. We wanted to take a closer look at this story, so we've called on two experts who've been following it closely.

XVI: Pope Benedict XVI and the Battle with the Modern World." He joins us from our bureau in New York. Also with us is Jason Berry. He's the author of "Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II." And he's recently written a series of articles on Father Marcial Maciel Degollado for the National Catholic Reporter. And he joins us on the line from Stillwater, Minnesota, and I thank you both for speaking with us.

DAVID GIBSON: Thank you.

JASON BERRY: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Jason, I'd like to start with you because, as we mentioned, you authored a book about this issue and you also produced a documentary titled "Vows of Silence" on this topic. I just want to play a little bit from the documentary. And it talks about Father Maciel and the order he founded.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "VOWS OF SILENCE")

Unidentified Man #1: We were like an army.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

Man #1: The army of Jesus Christ, the legion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Man #1: Marcial Maciel was the director. He could read your mind by looking at your eyes.

MARTIN: And I remember as a novice, this huge anticipation for meeting Father Maciel, whom we all believed was a living saint.

MARTIN: What, Jason, was Father Maciel's gift? I mean, he is described in these extremely powerful terms. What was the source of his power and authority?

BERRY: Well, I think he came from an aristocratic family that gave him a certain assumption of privilege. He was a deeply flawed human being, sexually abused, himself, as a child. He was an absolute genius at raising money, cultivating wealthy benefactors for the church and, of course, for his organization.

I was never able to interview him. But by all accounts, and according to, you know, a lot of the film footage that I've viewed over the years, he had a radiant persona. He was sort of charisma personified.

MARTIN: What is the scope of the abuse of which he's accused? And is it well attested to at this point?

BERRY: Oh, it's absolutely well attested to. He was initially accused by nine men in 1997 publicly of having abused them in seminary many years before that. As I got deeper into the reporting with my colleague Gerald Renner of the Hartford Current, we found that there were actually allegations made against, and very detailed allegations - as far back as the 1950s. Again, in 1976, a letter to the Vatican naming 20 victims. And it had been ignored for years.

Finally in 1998, a core of these men, eight of them, in fact, filed a case with Cardinal Ratzinger's tribunal at the Vatican formally accusing him. And it took eight years for it to work its way through the whole system. But eventually, as Pope Benedict, Ratzinger did remove him from active ministry.

MARTIN: And he's also believed to have fathered how many children out of what?

BERRY: Well, we know for a fact that he has a daughter who's 23 living in Spain. He has two sons living in Mexico. And then according to a newspaper in Madrid, there is a third family in Switzerland.

MARTIN: David, can you give us a sense of Father Maciel's place in Rome before, of course, the current finding? How is he viewed by the Vatican?

GIBSON: Well, I think that's - the chronology is important because now he's obviously a disgraced figure. But up until Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005, Father Maciel and the legion wielded extensive influence through his charm and through envelopes of cash.

And one of his prime benefactors in the Vatican was Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who was the secretary of state under the late John Paul II. Maciel and the legion really had carte blanche under John Paul's papacy, a beloved pope as John Paul was, great for the world, not so great for the church, perhaps.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things I was curious about is that the Vatican mandated the rewriting of the order's constitution. So how was this behavior managed to have been unchecked for so long, is I guess the question I have. So, Jason, perhaps you want to start in the day that he picked that up?

BERRY: Sure, Maciel, he basically plagiarized many of the precepts, if you will, of the Jesuits - nothing terribly wrong with that if you're going to live by them. But what he also did was layer on top of that a number of extreme measures, such as the so-called private vows, whereby each legionary took an oath never to speak ill of Father Maciel, never to criticize him, and to report to any superior even mild criticism within the ranks that anyone might have.

So, in a sense, it really rewarded spying on one another as an act of faith. These guys were brainwashed. And, you know, with all respect to Pope Benedict, I think the situation the Vatican is in right now is that by trying to salvage this organization by creating a new set of bylaws, they are really engaging in risk management, because so many of these men who've gone through this organization, they need psychotherapy. They need to understand that much of what they've been taught to believe, how they've been taught to behave with respect to fundraising, with respect to being forthright about all kinds of things, all of that has been so warped and flawed that, in a sense, they really need to start over.

MARTIN: David, if you pick the ball up there. And also, David, you should tell us how important the church is in Latin America - that particular order.

GIBSON: Well, yeah. And the church is central. And, of course, Maciel's Mexican roots and his influence throughout the region are really key. And, in fact, I don't know what the latest is, but I understand the Mexican cardinal, Cardinal Sandoval, is a leading candidate to be the Vatican's delegate overseeing the order.

What really needs to happen now is there needs to be a kind of an entire deprogramming of this order. And can that happen just by changing statutes? I don't know. I think a lot of people left, right and center in the church - again, this isn't an ideological thing - are doubtful that it can be done without a kind of purging root and branch.

MARTIN: And Father Maciel is no longer alive. Did he ever acknowledge any of his conduct while he was alive?

GIBSON: No. Absolutely not. In fact, he denied having abused anyone. And to give you an example of how this cult-like operation functioned, when he was banished from the active ministry by Pope Benedict in 2006, the religious order compared him to Jesus, saying that he chose not to defend himself and that he accepted his, quote, "new cross with tranquility of conscience."

In 2008, when he died, the legionaries released a press release - well, they put it on their Web site - saying that he had gone to heaven - a bit of hubris, I would modestly say. And then, a year later, they disclosed that to their surprise they learned that he had a grown daughter. Obviously, there are people high in the ranks of that organization who knew he had a double life. And they have not been removed from power, which is one of the issues the Vatican is now struggling with. Maciel himself never admitted to anything.

MARTIN: Well, I'm just going to read a paragraph, a couple of sentences. It says the extremely grave and objectively immoral behavior of Father Maciel - which has been confirmed by irrefutable testimony - takes the form of true crimes and demonstrates a private life without scruples or authentic religious sentiment.

But it goes on to say that that life was hidden from the great majority of legionaries, above all because of a system of relationships constructed by Father Maciel, who was adept at creating alibis for himself and winning the trust, confidence and silence of those around him, reinforcing his role as a charismatic founder.

I want to ask David and Jason if you could pick up from there, too. What do you think the impact of this communicae will be?

GORDON: It's really, is it focusing so much on Father Maciel, that it's giving the rest of the legion a pass? Which I think is a problematic issue, given that the legion is Maciel, and Maciel is the legion - or was.

MARTIN: Jason, a final thought from you: What is your sense of this? And forgive me, I know it's unfair to ask a journalist to predict, but what is your sense of, given your knowledge of the history of this, how - what impact this will have.

BERRY: The real issue here is whether Benedict will confront the circle of power in which he functions and agree to remove some of these cardinals in the Curia who are all but scoffing at the rest of the world as they sit in their perches of power.

MARTIN: Jason Berry is the author of "Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power and the Papacy of John Paul II." He also directed a documentary called "Vows of Silence." And he's recently written a series of articles on Father Maciel for the National Catholic Reporter. He was kind enough to join us on the line from Stillwater, Minnesota.

XVI: Pope Benedict XVI and the Battle with the Modern World." He joined us from our bureau in New York. Gentlemen, I thank you both for speaking with us.

GIBSON: Thank you.

BERRY: Thank you.

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