Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Marcial Maciel's sex and money scandal threatens the Vatican

Cardinal Ratzinger’s comment together with the “look” on his face when he was confronted by ABC investigative reporter Brian Ross some time ago caught my attention. Ross was trying to get a comment from Pope Benedict about the Maciel case. The future Pope slapped Ross on the hand and said “come to me when the time is right.”

I lived and studied in Rome for six years and had some access to the inner workings of the Vatican when I served as an aide de camp for a Cardinal, former Apostolic Delegate to the USA. That ‘look” on Cardinal Ratzinger’s face said it all – but neither it nor the Cardinal’s words generated as much comment as the slap on the wrist.  At the time, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith headed by Cardinal Ratzinger for two decades was the Vatican bureaucracy entrusted by Pope John Paul II (in 2001)  to handle clergy abuse cases. The future Pope listened to what the U.S. bishops had to say and seems to have acquired a better grasp of the magnitude of the problems before many of his Vatican peers. Time will tell if he set up the necessary management processes to begin to implement solutions.

Now that he is Pope Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Ratzinger is faced with the challenge of managing a crisis whose time has come. The case of Fr. Marcial Maciel the disgraced founder of the Legionaries of Christ has the potential for morphing from “Legiongate” to “Vaticangate.” We know Pope Benedict is a brilliant theologian and is regarded as a tough-minded disciplinarian. His challenge now is one of transformational leadership.

Despite the fact that the clergy abuse scandal exploded in the United States some twenty years ago it is not clear that the Vatican has the needed infrastructure to process reports of abuse. The abuse scandal looks to be compounded by the liberal National Catholic Reporter’s account of Fr. Maciel’s money management and the corruption of top Vatican officials. Damian Thompson of the Telegraph headlines today’s blog “A vast sex and money scandal threatens the Vatican. But, once again, Ratzinger emerges as the campaigner against 'filth'.”

This campaign will be waged in the world of donor relations, legal exposure and crisis management.
As Rachel Donadio points out in today’s NYT, the Vatican is an ancient institution struggling with modernity despite the fact that the liberalizing Second Vatican Council in the 1960s was supposed to update the church’s relation to the world. I recall the reaction of the late Cardinal Eduardo Pironio whom I am privileged to have counted as a friend, when he first came to the Vatican to head the Congregation for Religious. He was quite flabbergasted at the lack of computers or business-like management systems in the Vatican. He wondered, bitterly, how there could be any realistic control of finances, audits and etc. without the tools used in the corporate world. It was total culture shock for him, coming from Argentina. Like the current Pontiff, had to make do with the workings of a lethargic and highly politicized bureaucracy created in the 16th century to contend with the Protestant Reformation and the discovery of the New World. Donadio makes the salient point “By some lights, it is still grappling with both.”

In terms of influence peddling, it seemed to me that the Vatican did not operate in ways notably different to multinational corporations, and national governments including our own US Congress. The Vatican was not immune to lobbyists some of whom wore religious habits. Meanwhile the management systems, such as they are, have more in common with a small town bureaucracy than with a major global Church.  And if Pope Benedict is to campaign and lead effectively he needs better public relations support than he has on up to now.

NCR’s report makes the financial angle seem so sinister - and it probably is. It's hard to believe that Maciel started these practices in Rome but he certainly perfected them. The level of politics, intrigue and malicious gossip that I saw in the Vatican (totally independent of the Legion of Christ) always intrigued me - perhaps because initially I had such an innocent idea of what it was all about. Sometimes I delivered those Christmas baskets, mentioned in the reporting, to appreciative and influential Cardinals. It didn’t seem like bribery at the time. In fact, I think gestures of appreciation and support at Christmas was quite common in the corporate and political world. Did Fr. Maciel contribute larger amounts of money for more sinister purposes? I have no reason to believe he did not.

Was it all bribery? Yes - except euphemistically it was called by other names. Was it all malicious? I don't think so. Did Maciel use his extraordinary ability to influence people by using corporate giving? Absolutely. Knowing what we now know, it was indeed sinister. However, it’s worth mentioning that during the twenty years I knew the man I never saw any indication of his being a drug addict or that he had abused young seminarians.

I have no reason to disbelieve the awful revelations about him. I’m sure that whatever was deviant in his personality must have evolved in unimaginable ways from the mid-1980s until his death. It seems to me that he was in control of those baser impulses at least from the 1960’s until the mid-80s. Maybe he got his start when he was allegedly abused as a child on his father’s ranch. That evolution remains a terrible mystery. Those Legionaries (not exclusively current Legionary Superiors) who lived or knew of Maciel’s early misdeeds and covered for him betrayed those of us who didn’t suspect. I would feel angrier with them if I didn’t know what a superb manipulator Maciel was. His victims are indeed Legion.

As Pope Benedict wages his campaign he will need all our support. Clergy abuse and potential financial scandals constitute a heavy cross for a frail and shy theologian, albeit one who counts on Christ’s promise to be his rock. The young men in Legionary seminaries and the vast majority of good Legionary priests need prayerful and emotional support too. I can’t imagine what it must be like for them in their less busy moments when they actually have time to think. Priests in general have to be going through an awful time as the Pope figures out how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

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