Friday, February 14, 2014

The General Chapter of the Legionaries of Christ: a new beginning?

Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, whom I first met in 1962, was the greatest fundraiser of the modern Roman Catholic Church. Many of the first Legionaries he attracted excelled in recruiting young men to religious life in an era when vocations were plummeting.  He counted on the support of the Vatican, Cardinals, and Bishops. Wealthy lay people supported his pragmatic approach to solving problems. With their donations, he founded schools, seminaries, universities, and numerous charitable organizations. He convinced me to dedicate twenty years of my life to the service of the Church in Latin America.

My book “Driving Straight on Crooked Lines” was first published April 10, 2010. When I wrote it, I knew that on May 19th 2006, Pope Benedict XVI had ordered Maciel to retire from the priestly ministry to a life of prayer and penance because of the credible accusations of sex abuse levelled by some of Maciel’s first seminarians.  Maciel died on the 30th of January, 2008, when he was 87 years old.
When I was writing my memoirs I did not know that, in fact, Maciel was a notorious pedophile, and that he had fathered several children by different women. While I agonized over my decision to leave the Legion he already had a secret family of his own. My former hero is now regarded as one of the greatest con artists of the twentieth century. His life epitomizes many aspects of the clergy abuse crisis that continues to plague the church.

For decades, the Cardinals in charge of Vatican congregations, and perhaps Pope John Paul II, ignored the persistent allegations that Maciel was an imposter and an abuser. The man I, and most of my Legionary brothers, thought was a living saint was a morphine addict, a serial abuser of young seminarians, and the father of several children.

When Maciel died on Jan. 30, 2008, the Legion leadership, most of whom I knew well from my time in the congregation, announced that the founder we called “Nuestro Padre” had gone to heaven. I wondered if their optimistic judgment with regard to his final destination was based on some better understanding of the facts. I suppose I too was in denial. The revelations regarding his private life were just too painful. It was so hard to accept that I had been duped on such a profound level. In February 2009, the Legionaries revealed that Maciel had a daughter. Later, they issued a vaguely worded statement of regret to unnamed victims, sexually abused by Maciel. This statement came four years after he had been removed from ministry by Pope Benedict.

At the time of Maciel’s death, the Legion had an estimated annual budget of $650,000,000 supporting 700 priests and 1,300 seminarians.

In March 2009, Pope Benedict XVI decided to begin an “apostolic visitation,” a sort of Vatican audit, of the Legion of Christ and their lay organization known as Regnum Christi. The visitation was mandated by Benedict after the congregation’s major superiors admitted in early 2009 that Maciel had lived a morally depraved double life, fathering at least a daughter and perhaps other children from at least one mistress, and sexually abusing young seminarians.

The apostolic visitation was carried out by five Vatican appointed Bishops. Upon its conclusion, Pope Benedict XVI decided to continue to help the Legionaries of Christ by appointing Archbishop Velasio De Paolis (whom he later elevated to the rank of Cardinal) as a “pontifical delegate,” with the task of guiding the congregation of the Legionaries of Christ through a process of revision, profound re-evaluation, and renewal.

The process of renewal culminated in that is known as a “General Chapter,” which began on Wednesday, January 8, 2014. After three years revising their charism, the Legionaries must approve a new constitution and choose new leadership to effectively put an end to the era of their founder Marcial Maciel. The revised constitution, which will be submitted to Pope Francis for approval, is expected to be an expression of a common vocation, a common ideal, a common mission, a common path to healing, and an impulse to strive in common striving for the fulfillment of God’s plan for the congregation, for all the members and for the service to the Church. The new leadership will dictate what path the Legionaries of Christ will set on, in the coming years.

This process will technically put an end to the Vatican's oversight of the Congregation, a process that has been underway for the past three years. It remains to be seen whether the Chapter will mark a credible new beginning, or whether it becomes a sickening and demoralizing exercise in public relations to cover up the inability of the “old guard” to change.

Based on how slowly the wheels of justice turn in the Church, I never expected any major, discernible change in the Legion – including a renewal of the leadership – until the General Chapter. The results will depend on the collective wisdom of the Chapter Delegates, their willingness to change, and, most importantly, their credibility with newly-elected Pope Francis. I think it is only realistic to suggest that sustainable change probably will not occur in this generation. It will take many years to overcome the dysfunctional culture inherited from Maciel.

As an experienced management consultant, and as a former Legionary, there are many suggestions I would like to have offered to the Chapter Delegates – if they were interested in my opinion. Therein, I think, is one of the greatest weaknesses in Legionary culture: it is a culture closed in on itself, circulating the same beliefs in a never ending loop, devoid of critical thinking. Legionaries never seem to want outside advice - especially from former Legionaries who, in general, have been systematically shunned once they leave the order.

The structure of power within the Legion needs major rethinking. Personal conscience needs to be respected in the spirit of Vatican II and the teachings of Pope Francis. The vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience need to be reinterpreted and aligned with the “best practices” of the Catholic Church. The private vow made by Legionaries to never criticize a superior and to inform the superior general of any transgressions to this vow they might discover, needs to be permanently buried in the scrapheap of their history. One could argue that such a vow provides a sense of organizational cohesion – but it has been indelibly tainted by the manipulative mind of the founder and has no place in a renewed Legion.

If I were to see the Legionaries make a sincere and sustained effort to ask for forgiveness (not just collectively, but as individuals) to all former Legionaries, and to Regnum Christi members, I might believe that genuine change is possible for them. Many of us, who in good faith joined the Congregation giving of our blood, sweat, and tears, during many years because we believed in the Church, and the Legion. When we discerned our true vocations, according to our individual consciences, we were shunned, calumniated, left entirely to our own devices, and regarded as traitors. This shunning is the essence of their dysfunctional behavior and symptomatic of so many flaws in the Legion’s foundational culture. A functional family would wish to be reconciled with all of their brothers and sisters.

Despite the deep hurt caused to me by Marcial Maciel, and by the actions and attitude of many Legionary superiors, I hope the Legionaries can find their way to true reform. Many of my former companions are good men, and good priests, whom I have always considered as brothers. We lived together in a very dysfunctional family. Now that the sins of the father are public, the pretense, the lies, and the dysfunctional understanding of the religious vows need not continue. It is time for a new beginning. I hope they are up to the challenge and I wish them well.