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The case for suppressing the Legion of Christ

A new scandal shows that only the 'nuclear option' will help to restore the Church's credibility

The Legion of Christ is back in the news, with AP reporting on a gruesome story in Mexico, not only of abuse and cover-up, but also of failure to reform in the wake of revelations regarding the outfit’s founder: a charismatic sociopath called Fr Marcial Maciel. He started the Legion, which served him as a front for his perverse criminal double-life. He also founded a lay arm, Regnum Christi, which served as his cash cow.

“The papal envoy who ran the Legion starting in 2010,” AP reports, “learned about the case [in Mexico] nearly a decade ago and refused to punish or even investigate the priest or the superiors who covered up his crimes, many of whom are still in power and ministry today.”

AP noted that the story “has been corroborated by other victims and the Legion itself” and “has sparked a new credibility crisis for the once-influential order, 10 years after the Holy See took it over after determining that its founder was a pedophile”.

AP said: “[I]t has called into question the Vatican reform itself: The papal envoy who ran the Legion starting in 2010 learned about the case nearly a decade ago and refused to punish or even investigate the priest or the superiors who covered up his crimes, many of whom are still in power and ministry today.”

The Legion and its infamous founder enjoyed the favour of Pope John Paul II and the protection of several senior churchmen in his inner circle.

The very best one can say about John Paul II is that he let himself be made the dupe of a wicked man and the best we can hope is that he would have done better, had he been able to make himself see. I have no trouble believing that John Paul II is a saint in heaven — Mother Church tells me he is — but he is a saint in heaven despite his governance of the Church, not because of it, at least insofar as concerns these particulars.

The man who became Benedict XVI was not taken in.

Joseph Ratzinger knew what man he had in Fr Maciel, but only did some of what he could have done, both before and after he came to sit in Peter’s see. Why he did not suppress the Legion when he had the chance is a mystery. Knowing now what he knew when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I wonder why he did not resign that office and tell the world of Maciel’s wickedness and depravity.

The man Pope Benedict XVI appointed to oversee the Legion in 2010, Archbishop (later Cardinal) Velasio De Paolis, made no secret of his intention to eschew the heavy hand in favour of a light footprint on the order and Regnum Christi. AP alleged on Monday that “a series of Legion leaders”, including Cardinal De Paolis, chose not to report “to police or even the Vatican” one particularly heinous abuser — Fernando Martínez Suárez, who had himself been a victim of Maciel’s predations and went on to abuse at least six girls in Cancún.

Over the years I’ve had dozens of conversations with churchmen and Church watchers about the Legion of Christ. Not one of them that I can recall ever gave anything close to what he thought might have been a satisfactory explanation for Pope Benedict XVI’s decision not to suppress that congregation.

Suppressing any religious order or congregation is a major step: the nuclear option in ecclesiastical life. A powerful organisation such as the Legion of Christ, with its hundreds of priests and billions of dollars in assets worldwide, would make a fine mess for the Vatican if it were suppressed. The Holy See could find itself with ownership of those assets, hence on the hook for claims on them from victims, creditors and tax authorities.

Putting aside the question of who would own the Legion’s assets if the Vatican suppressed the order tomorrow, there would still be the issue of dealing with the Legion’s clerics. One may readily imagine that not many local ordinaries or superiors of other religious orders or regular congregations would be willing to take on Legionary priests without vetting.

The men who didn’t find a diocese in which to incardinate or an order to join would simply lose the clerical state. That might be unfair to men who were unwitting. It is difficult to see how it would be unjust. Churchmen and church watchers across the spectrum of opinion have come to believe the suppression of the Legion is necessary in any case.

Ten years ago, when Benedict appointed De Paolis to oversee the Legion’s phase of ecclesiastical receivership, the business would have been easier to manage. He might have instructed De Paolis to liquidate the Legion’s real assets, shutter its schools (or offer them to the dioceses in which they were erected, endowing them from the sale of assets), close its seminaries and put the Legion’s priests on notice. He didn’t do that, though, and here we are. Pope Francis could do it, yet.

All three men who have reigned since the crisis became a scandal have talked a good game.

In 2002, when the scandal erupted in the United States, Pope John Paul II said: “People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young.” He had put Theodore McCarrick in the US capital see a little more than a year before he uttered those words, and only relented on Maciel when he was too old and sick to keep Ratzinger’s CDF from reopening the case against him.

In 2005, the man who would become Benedict XVI lamented “How much filth there is in the Church.” He dealt strongly with Maciel, but not as strongly as he might have. He passed significant reforms to criminal law, but did not build an enforcement system adequate to the task he assigned on paper. He let McCarrick retire with honour, and spared Maciel’s Legion.

Francis has said many of the right things. He has also passed paper reforms, but he has been reluctant to employ them consistently and he has so far refused to explain himself. He restored Cardinal Danneels to favour after he urged a victim to keep silence. He initially gave an old associate — Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta — the benefit of the doubt when credible accusations emerged and even created a job for him in the Vatican.

Meanwhile, the crisis of abuse and cover-up has become a scandal in countries on every habitable continent. In places the crisis has not yet become a scandal, it will. There is no easy fix. No sane man should think he knows just what to do. Pope Francis did not create the mess. He is not wrong to say that we all have a part in the solution. Francis is Pope now, though. That means this mess is ultimately his responsibility.

As long as the Legion exists, anyone within the Church or outside will be able to ask, rightly: “What about the Legion?” whenever anyone argues that the Church is trying to reform herself. Suppressing the Legion would not fix all – or even very many – of the structural problems in the Church, but it would remove a permanent obstacle to the credibility of Church leadership at the highest level.