Carmen Aristegui is a 47 year old Mexican journalist, graduated from Mexico’s UNAM University. She anchors the news program Aristegui at CNN in Spanish, and until recently did the morning news program on MVS Newsradio in Mexico City. She is a recognized expert on Mexican politics and is the recipient of prestigious awards for journalism. I have seen many of her TV shows. For the better part of the last 10 years she has been pursuing the case of Fr. Marcial Maciel, the Founder of the Legionaries of Christ. She helped break the story of a Mexican woman, Blanca Lara, and her three sons Omar, Raúl and Christian González. Lara said she was 19 when she met Maciel, who was then 57, and that for 20 years she had a relationship with the priest, who went by the name "Raúl Rivas" and told her he was a private detective and worked for the CIA, which explained why he travelled so much. She alleges that two of the children are Maciel’s. Furthermore, the children allege they were abused by their father.
The Maciel myth finally began to unravel in 1997, when the Hartford Courant (a daily newspaper in the U.S. state of Connecticut) reported that eight former seminarians had accused Maciel of sexually abusing them years earlier in the 1950s. Some members of this group of now elderly former Legionaries have appeared on Aristegui’s TV and radio shows.
“Marcial Maciel” focuses mostly on the allegations of sexual abuse and the impact of the ensuing scandal on the Catholic Church. The author uses material from her investigative reporting including interviews, analysis and clandestine recordings of Fr. Luis Garza, the Vicar General of the Legionaries.
The story of Fr. Maciel’s sexual abuse, hypocrisy, and fraudulent spirituality in high places is already well documented. On May 1, 2010, following a formal investigation of Fr. Maciel and the Legionaries, the Vatican declared,
“The Apostolic Visitation was able to ascertain that the behavior of Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado has caused serious consequences in the life and structure of the Legion, so much so, to require a journey of profound re-evaluation. The serious and objectively immoral behavior of Fr. Maciel, supported by incontrovertible evidence, at times constitutes real crimes, and manifests a life devoid of scruples and of genuine religious feeling. The large majority of Legionaries were unaware of that life, particularly because of the system of relations created by Fr. Maciel, who had skillfully managed to build up an alibi, to gain the trust, confidence and surrounding silence and strengthen his role as a charismatic founder.”
Although Aristegui’s book reveals little or nothing new about the scandal, she seems to have two (explicit) motivations for writing her book. The first is to recognize the “moral victory” achieved by the former seminarians who told the story of their abuse by Maciel which led to the Vatican pronouncement. The second she attributes to the impact the Gonzalez Lara testimony had on her.
In 295 pages the author presents 17 interviews. Four of them are with the abused former seminarians who denounced Maciel. Their testimonies, once again, make for an unsettling read even though they add little new, or different, information to that already reported in the press and provided by Jason Berry in “Vows of Silence.” The interviews suggest it was Jose Barba who organized and led the group that came together to denounce Maciel and Jose Antonio Perez who established contact with Jason Berry.
In addition to the recounting of the details of the sexual abuse to which they were subjected all of them seem to agree that Maciel had to have had accomplices within the Legion and within the Church hierarchy. While Aristegui’s interview questions are fairly straightforward, she does demonstrate a pattern of leading questions and she makes no effort to hide the fact that she would like to attribute far more blame to Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI for their involvement in the scandal.
Miguel Diaz is also interviewed. Initially, he supported the allegations of abuse and then retracted his testimony. I knew him well and, despite the passage of time, I can still hear his “voice” in his responses as he explains why he retracted. In a nutshell, he does not deny that some seminarians were abused although his estimate of the number is more conservative. He was asked by Maciel to reconsider his testimony and, he says, he did so because of the overall impact of Maciel on his life. He continues to claim that personally he was not sexually abused and reiterates that he received more good than bad from the Founder for whom he still feels a sense of loyalty.
Juan Jose Vaca is another of the interviewees I knew well when I was in the Legion. In fact, I remember teaching him to drive when he was responsible for recruiting children for the Legionary’s Apostolic School in Spain. It is still painful to read of his suffering about which I knew nothing while we worked together. Juan Jose, myself, and an ordained priest, Fr. Angel de la Torre lived and worked in close proximity during the three months I served as their driver as they recruited vocations in the north of Spain.
The remaining chapters of the book are devoted to interviews with Jeff Andersen, Alberto Athie (a former diocesan priest in Mexico), Bernardo Barranco, Jason Berry, Roberto Blancarte, Flora Garza Barragan, Fr. Luis Garza Medina, LC (based on clandestine recordings), Fernando Gonzalez, The Gonzalez Lara family, and Lucila Servitje.
Attorney Andersen represents the Gonzalez Lara children in a lawsuit he has brought against the Legion of Christ in Connecticut. Other than the fact that I’ve seen him quoted elsewhere as having allegedly vowed to “sue the sh–” out of the Catholic Church “everywhere,” it is not immediately obvious why he should be involved in a case that to a layman’s perspective appears to be of Mexican jurisdiction. He would apparently like nothing more than to put the present Pope on trial in the United States since, he implies, both the Vatican hierarchy, and the current Legionary superiors did not protect children from the ravages of Fr. Maciel. In the interview, he suggests he has access to documents which prove this allegation. In a sense, the interview with the US attorney sets the “tone” for the rest of the book which tends to use the Maciel case to indict John Paul II and Pope Benedict..
Roberto Blancarte is a Mexican sociologist and historian specializing in the role of “laypersons” in society. He served as an advisor in the Mexican Embassy to the Holy See from 1995 – 1998. Personally I found the interview with him the most helpful. He provides a balanced and enlightened view of the role of the hierarchy in the scandal and of the relationship between the Legion of Christ and Mexican society. With regard to the former, he believes the Vatican doesn’t understand the structural problems behind the clergy abuse scandals. As to the latter, he believes that the mission of the Legion needs to be redefined in order to move away from an unhealthy alliance with the rich and powerful captains of Mexican industry, especially those from Monterrey. He believes that those Legionaries who opt for a radical transformation of the Congregation will run into a bureaucratic machine which will make change very difficult. I found Blancarte’s analysis and perspective to be refreshing and useful.
Lucila Servitje is the daughter of a powerful Mexican industrialist, owner of the Bimbo Group. Mr. Servitje pulled his company’s advertising from Mexico’s Channel 40 when they transmitted a negative report on Fr. Maciel, back in 1997. Ms. Servitje is theologian with a strong bent towards liberation theology. She expounds on some of her theological ideas with regard to the role of Fr. Maciel and the measures the Legion might take to move on from the scandal. However, I suspect her main reason for accepting the interview was to state, strongly, that her father and her immediate family did not know Fr. Maciel personally and that they were not amongst his supporters.
Two interviews are related to the life and death of a good friend of mine, Fr. Juan Manuel Fernández Amenábar. Neither of them add anything new to the “facts” that are already in the public domain – Amenábar died in a prestigious Mexican hospital having choked on his food while struggling with the effects of a stroke. At the time of his death he was no longer a Legionary and had been married for several years. Alberto Athié is a former Mexican priest who left the priesthood upon experiencing the hierarchy’s negative response to an alleged near death-bed confession made to him by Fr. Amenábar in which he claimed to have been abused by Fr. Maciel. Andrea González is a Mexican woman who claims to have been very close to Amenábar during his last months in hospital and whose interview corroborates and expands on Mr. Athié’s account. I must say I struggle to accept the totality of their testimony about my friend. I wasn’t there for the events they relate – but their account differs in worrisome ways from the version given to me by trusted lay people, mutual friends of Fr. Amenábar and me and who were frequent visitors during his hospital stay. My friend is dead and gone. What matters is that in his final illness he was abandoned by the Legionaries and by the Founder Fr. Maciel, whom he enthusiastically served with notable and contagious joie de vivre during the 17 years I knew him in the Legion. We reconnected and remained friends for a further 13 years after we both left the Congregation. I still miss him.
The transcription of clandestine recorded conferences delivered by the Legion’s current Vicar General, Fr. Luis Garza Medina offers no new or surprising tid-bits of information. Fr. Garza basically reveals how he and his companions were shocked to discover the details of the double life of Fr. Maciel, and how they attempted to deal with and manage the “news” internally and externally.
In conclusion, “Marcial Maciel, the story of a criminal” adds little new information to the sordid facts already revealed about the double-life of the Founder of the Legionaries of Christ. What the book achieves is to bring together in one volume the essential details of Fr. Maciel’s abuse of children, and his manipulation of both friends and foes, while providing a largely unsympathetic view of the Catholic hierarchy together with a pessimistic prognosis for the survival of the Legion of Christ. It is a sad story that many, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, will find disturbing. Aristegui’s interviews reveal the raw emotions of the abused and the views of her guests who – some more knowledgeably than others – analyze the causes and effects of Fr. Maciel’s behavior on Mexico and the Catholic Church. Overall it is a book, given the author’s interest in the subject, that had to be written. Although some might question her motives, Aristegui does a good job of recounting, once again, a story that Catholics and supporters of the Legion, ignore at their peril.