Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Oh, what a tangled web! The Legion's latest scandal.


After ordination, a Legionary priest enjoys a sense of accomplishment. He has survived trials and tribulations including Postulancy, Novitiate, Juniorate, he has earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy and has studied sacred theology for at least four years. He probably spent up to three years in the field, practicing his future work, as a Legionary “intern.” He has prayed for at least three and a half hours out of every day. He examined his conscience twice a day and reflected in total silence on his having been called by God “from all eternity” during his annual week of spiritual exercises. He has gone to confession at least weekly, he has sought spiritual direction at least once a month, and he has devised countless plans and programs to “reform his life” under the guidance of his superiors.

Now he has a sense of “mission accomplished.” He is ready to take on the world with a new sense of acceptance, and mission. He is intimately convinced that he has one of the most important vocations known to man: he is a Legionary priest, faithful to the Pope, highly trained, multi-lingual. He can say Mass, administer the sacraments, and forgive sins. As an ordained priest he has a little more freedom than he did as a seminarian. He is a “big boy” now and he probably feels that his superiors trust him and respect him. Perhaps, soon he will become a superior himself. When he joins a new community he will get to know some of his peers better and enjoy a sense of camaraderie. His busy life,  the belief that he is saving souls, the increased contact with others outside the Legion that it affords, help to keep him from feeling lonely. He knows that his love for Jesus is enough. He even persuades himself that he is “in love” He is happy and fulfilled. And all of this works, for a while.

Depending on his age and whether or not he was fast-tracked to ordination, the repressed instincts of his adolescent years start to re-assert themselves. He may eventually realize that the land he is now working in is not his own. He misses the connection with his family, and he has lost contact with friends he had before becoming a Legionary. He knows that the foreign language he speaks so well is “foreign” to him. Maybe he is no longer sure what culture he belongs to. Is he Irish, Spanish, Mexican, Italian or is he “a citizen of the world?” He resents the fact that people place him on a pedestal. They assume that he is holy, wise, perfect, and beyond temptation. He enjoys the innocent and light-hearted way that women flirt with him because they trust his chastity and celibacy. He intuits that because he is “not available” he is more attractive.

Now that he is less obsessed with his own formation and vocational discernment he begins to reflect on what he now knows to be true about the founder of his Congregation.  He never saw anything to cause concern – but he knows he was not looking. He was trained never to criticize a Superior. He begins to become aware that he is not big on critical thinking skills. People share with him their concerns about clergy abuse, the impact the Fr. Maciel scandal has on their faith, their sincere criticisms of his Legionary formation. Depending on his maturity and self-confidence, he notices that some things don’t seem quite right. He talks about “trust” but he doesn’t really understand the concept because he has never learned to trust his brother Legionaries in the deepest sense of the term. Now that he is older and more experienced, he sees that several of his superiors have been manipulative of him and others. He wonders who knew what, when, and who should have been more forthright with him about the private life of Fr. Maciel. How many of his companions were abused, whether physically or emotionally, and never said anything. Why did so many of the founding Legionaries deny the accusations about the founder? He believed them and not the gossip from the outside world. He begins to feel betrayed and certainly less sure of the internal story he has been telling himself for so long.

Thank God he was trained to handle this situation! He knows this is the devil seeking to destroy his vocation. He may mention this in spiritual direction and he finds it relatively easy to live in denial. Above all he knows that if he remains very busy, he won’t have time to think negative thoughts. There are so many souls to be saved! Speaking of saving souls, he admires his peers who work on the missions, mostly in south east Mexico. He thinks of them as hard-working, dedicated, fervent priests totally involved in hands-on pastoral work. He secretly envies their more “laid-back” style although he thinks they should be more “integrated” with their Legionary vocation. Much as he admires them, he knows they are not cut out for the important work he does with the “elites.” He is saving their souls too and besides, he gives them the opportunity to help save the world with their example, their leadership, and their money. When the doubts come back, he prays, stays very busy, and falls back on that old denial workhorse.

Eventually, some Legionaries begin to yearn for the intimacy that their mandatory celibacy has denied them.  As priests they are exposed to the joy they see in happy couples being married. They experience the happiness of other people’s family celebrations. They see how parents are nourished by the love of their children. They see couples who trust each other despite their failings. They became aware, again, of something missing in their lives. Returning to the loneliness of a small community doesn’t make it go away. They wonder if they will miss the friends they have made when inevitably they will be moved on to another assignment precisely because they are not really supposed to have “friends” in the normal sense of the term. Whether or not they like the new assignment is not supposed to matter. But it does, because not all individuals fit well in a certain community or social environment. Our hypothetical Legionary’s view of life which was stark black and white begins shifting to shades of gray.

Meanwhile, all the criticism of Father Maciel, and of the Legionary superiors, including Cardinal De Paolis the apostolic delegate in charge of reforming the Congregation has caused friends of the Legion to be more circumspect in what they talk about with their Legionary priests. It has become common to hear some of the most faithful Regnum Christi people complain of being used and “sucked dry” by the Legionaries who they consider to be excessively relentless in their pursuit of new recruits and funds. The pedophile scandals have caused lay people in general to be more cautious in the invitations that they extend to a priest. Breaking with a long tradition, Father is no longer automatically placed on a pedestal. He wonders what people think when they see him dressed, nearly always, in his clerical garb. He figures this is a great way to witness to this commitment to the Lord. But he can read the mistrust in people's glances, the way mother's instinctively grasp their child's hand a tad more firmly when he is near. Inside he is beginning to feel profoundly lonely, a loneliness he finds difficult to describe and even more difficult to talk about. He misses his ties with his extended family and would like to be closer to his brothers and sisters but, more often than not, they don’t live nearby. He knows they resent his being so “absent” from their lives although they feel honored to have a Legionary son. He wonders why they sometimes seem to be so “anti-Legion” and he senses they have a better understanding of the situation than he has. He hates how Fr. Maciel let him down and he wonders if the Legion can ever be the congregation he thought he had joined.

By now, our priest longs to be appreciated for who he is beyond his priestly and his Legionary role. People don’t seem to understand that he is a human being with feelings who needs to connect intimately with others by sharing his joys, sorrows, and tears. Sure, he loves his band of Legionary brothers but he has come to be aware that he longs for authenticity with another human being. It must be great to be able to express ones innermost thoughts, share a genuinely warm hug, and have a shoulder to cry on. But the unwritten rules of the priestly lifestyle, the vast amount of Legionary rules and norms designed to perfect him and protect him from temptation,  and his over-arching role as a priest to protect the power of the Catholic Church have forced him to keep himself aloof from women.

I suspect most priests experience much of what I’ve outlined above. At some point, some of them meet a woman who sees their essence and humanness, whose very presence and understanding invites him to share his true feelings about life in general. At first she may be a shoulder to cry on or she has a cause he will fight for. He realizes how totally emotionally immature he is and how he is clueless when it comes to intimacy. He remembers coming across publications suggesting that in order to be celibate priests need to have genuine, healthy relationships with women. That’s something that has always been frowned upon and prevented by his Legionary lifestyle. He fears that he has become aware of truly important realities late in life. Typically, he will deny to himself that his feelings for this special woman could affect his priestly vocation. He is already well used to managing denial. Furthermore, this is not easy stuff to bring up in spiritual direction with a fellow Legionary because he knows his superior will be made aware of his “crisis” and he will probably moved to distant destination post haste. So he keeps quiet, stays busy and begins to question everything. He wonders if celibacy and priesthood are not separate vocations. What would happen if he were to act on his newfound feelings? Initially he may not be able to name it but if he thinks its love he will most likely deny this to himself.

Inevitably, for some, there occurs a sudden breakthrough into intimacy, regardless of how expressed. I'm not talking about "normal" temptations with regard to chastity. Those he can handle. The "intimacy" issue is much bigger, much more difficult. A Legionary knows that if he were to fall in love, his options are extremely limited, although he tends to think that no matter how far he might stray "emotionally" he will be able to manage. He will want to recommit to his priesthood and the strict Legionary lifestyle he lived in the houses of formation. That will probably be his first instinct. Besides, he feels too "old" and perhaps too useless to leave and find a new job. What would his parents and friends think? For the past twenty years or so he has been trained to believe that women are the root cause of most of his temptations and that to abandon his vocation sets him on the road to hell. Our Legionary priest is having quite a decent mid-life crisis!

The widely reported cases of clergy abuse are gnawing at his own sense of identity. The betrayal of his founder has grievously damaged his belief in the Legion. How much more can he take? Will the Legion ever be "reformed?"  Can he and his companions ever get over the scandal? Does the Vatican Delegate know what steps to take? Have his superiors truly got his best interests at heart? Fidelity to a priestly vocation is never easy, even in the best of circumstances. Now people are telling him he belongs to a cult, founded by a pederast. He doesn't feel the support he used to feel from other Catholics and his beloved congregation is openly and harshly criticized. He is tired having to recruit, recruit, recruit, and he's less convinced that he is recruiting for the right cause. No wonder he might need a shoulder to cry on, a loving hug, and someone to "really" talk to. Someone who understands and appreciates him.

This is quite a dilemma for a fairly young Legionary priest. If he has been subtly coerced into following an uncertain “vocation” and knows in his heart that he has never truly been permitted to entertain doubts though a coercive regime of spiritual direction, and manipulative pressure from various superiors, spiritual directors and perhaps even the founder himself, he may discern that God is calling him elsewhere. This process of discernment will be the most difficult he will ever undertake in his life. If he has “fallen” and has engendered a child, the die is cast. All things being equal, his loyalty must now be to the child and to the mother. This decision may be easier to make but no less difficult. A priest in this situation will be rejected by the hierarchy and by most of his peers. In both cases, the priest will feel shunned by his fellow Legionaries. They may profess support and understanding, but in reality he will be expelled from the system and from the collective memory. The priest’s dilemma is compounded by his dependency on the Church and his congregation for everything from his food and lodging to the fraternity of his peers, and his very identity. If he comes from a fairly traditional Catholic family, this dependency is woven into his genes.

Most Legionaries who face the intimacy debacle may seek to recommit to their priesthood. Some few may manage to suppress their feelings and manage a clandestine relationship that is inherently unfair to themselves and their partner. The former need serious professional counseling in order to address the intimacy issues.  The latter have my understanding but not my respect. They set themselves up to cause great scandal and damage to many souls. And they usually need a co-dependent relationship with their superiors.

I imagine that much of the above applies to the sad case of Fr. Thomas Williams. Beyond the personal tragedy (Fr. Williams is also being treated for cancer) and the inevitable suffering of the protagonists, I am troubled by the apparent lack of action by his religious superiors. It is clear that they have been well aware of his situation for some time. Why was he allowed to continue teaching and preaching for so long after conceiving a child? Did they not think that this situation would eventually come to light? How could they have been so out of touch with reality to miss the obvious connections that have to be made with the reprehensible conduct of the founder? Did they not realize how their mishandling of this case would further undermine their already limited credibility? Fr. Williams is not beyond reproach; he has accepted responsibility for his actions. What about his superiors? Do they not deserve even more blame?

It's clear that current Legionary leadership for whatever reasons dictated by their consciences  -and probably Church authorities, - sought to cover up Fr. Maciel's abuse, relationships and child(ren). Perhaps they sought to avoid scandal to Legionaries, seminarians, their families, benefactors, and thousands upon thousands of faithful Christians.  It's also not clear that they fully understood the extent and gravity of the founder's conduct. Nor has there been enough unambiguous expression of compassion for the victims of Fr. Maciel's abuse. Since the revelations about Fr. Maciel were made public, at least seven Legionary priests, accused of serious abuse which has been reported to the Vatican, seem to have been able to continue unscathed and unidentified within the Legion. These men deserve due process, although the Legion itself has made it clear that their "delicta graviora" are serious and credible. As if all this were not enough, now we have learned that Fr. Thomas Williams, one of the most notable of the American Legionaries, a "public figure" (unlike the other seven) fathered a child and was allowed to continue in his ministry for a number of years apparently with the full knowledge and consent of the major superiors. No doubt there may be compelling pastoral reasons to explain this lack of decisive action, although I can't think of any. However, in management terms, I think the "three strikes and you're out" rule is applicable now. Unless there is some extraordinarily compelling rationale offered for this lamentable and apparently self-serving behavior major leadership changes need to happen now.

Eight hundred Legionary priests and twenty six hundred Legionary seminarians - together with their families and benefactors - must have a tremendous sense of anxiety. When will the next Legionary scandal hit the headlines and who will it involve? How can these good men be expected to trust the decisions of their superiors and the Vatican itself? The fact that so many of them do continue to trust the Vatican and its management of the Legion of Christ, despite recent events, begins to suggest a worrying lack of critical thinking and a totally dysfunctional understanding of obedience. Yet, there is only so much a professed religious can do in the face of major institutional reluctance to change. The harsh reality is that most men caught in this twisted web don't have too many options. No doubt they will soldier on, doing their best "to save souls" while remaining faithful to their perceived vocation. It is past time for the Vatican and its delegate to show some leadership that is less "other worldly."  When and if they remedy the leadership situation (the easy part) they need to examine the whole issue of "intimacy" in the formation of a celibate clergy. The Church needs more priestly vocations. It's not like seminaries around the world are bursting at the seams. Legionary priests and seminarians deserve a chance. Times have changed and it's time to get our sainted heads out of the sand.


Anonymous said...

Not sure how many times this has been said on Life-After-RC and other blogs but strike another prophetic moment for former LC Fr. Frances Snell (aka Changobeer):

"No one believes either, that the present leadership of the LC can reform or save the congregation because you are (we are!) what we will always be: hijos fieles del P.Maciel...

"What will ultimately make the LC crumble, what has caused the insufferable state of inner tension and foreboding in her rank and file is, quite frankly, the lack of credibility of its leadership."

Pray for everyone involved! With Pentecost approaching, let us pray to the Holy Spirit! Pray especially that He comfort the victims of LC/RC and that He provide Pope Benedict and Cardinal DeP with the wisdom to fix this situation.

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderfully insightful post.

However, I think there is one key connection you fail to make. You ask a series of questions, starting with "Why was he allowed to continue teaching and preaching for so long after conceiving a child?" I think it is obvious that a large part of the answer is that LC is a cult, and this is how cults behave.

--eduardo montez

Anonymous said...

I found your blog late -- Thank you for your incredible insight. I am not Catholic. I am (present tense) a fan of Fr. Williams with several of his books on my bookshelf. My heart breaks for him and his family -- all of his family.

I do note that on ALL of the blogs I have read, not one person mentions the possibility that he relinquished his parental rights and the mother and child have moved forward. She, possibly, has married and her husband, possibly, has adopted the child. Most bloggers, and those commenting, think Fr. Williams should suddenly appear in the child's life and become his/her dad. Has anyone thought about the ramifications and harm that would do to the child? It seems the child is not a baby -- possibly nearing his/her teenage years. There are so many unknowns in this story that are NONE of our business. We must pray for all concerned and hope they have made, and will make, the best decisions.

Another observation: If seven priests were accused of pedophilia the week before Fr. Williams' transgressions were made public, why have their names not been in the news??? They are the criminals. They are the priests who should be strung up by their toe nails. It is their names that should be all over the media. If Fr. Williams and his family must endure the public embarrassment of him acknowledging that he fell in love and brought a beautiful life into this world, why do the criminals escape public scrutiny?

The Monk said...

Eduardo, I'm glad you found the post useful. No doubt the LC has behaved as a cult. The management of Fr. W's case demonstrates a tremendous lack of judgement and a disconnect from reality. I hope good comes from the suffering of all those involved.

The Monk said...

Anonymous @ May 30, 2012 8:36 PM

I totally agree with the points you make in your second paragraph.

With regard to the seven accused priests, it appears the cases date from decades past. They were not accused just before the William's case - they were reported to the CDF. Hopefully they will be subjected to a full, fair and transparent process. It's very troubling that these cases are only coming to light now.I would not be surprised if some of them may not have been among Maciel's victims.

Maybe these latest scandals are a portent that the shaded windows of the LC are being opened up to let in some winds of change to blow the remnants of the founder's legacy away. We can only hope and pray.