ON MAY 19, Pope Benedict XVI disgraced one of the most powerful priests in the Roman Catholic Church, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the ultraconservative Legion of Christ. Benedict's decision to publicly discipline the priest came after an investigation into allegations that Maciel had sexually abused "more than 20 and less than 100 victims" in seminary, according to the National Catholic Reporter.
On the face of it, the pope's "invitation" to Maciel to give up his public ministry in favor of a quiet life of "prayer and penitence" may not seem a terribly harsh punishment for an alleged serial sex abuser. But in doing so, Benedict did something extraordinarily unusual: He cast doubt on his predecessor's judgment.
The culture of apostolic succession invites each new pope to be exquisitely respectful of the popes who came before him. Historians now must scramble to explain why the late Pope John Paul II, who called for the church to atone for institutional sins by "the purification of historical memory," sheltered Maciel for years. Utterly ignoring the pleas of Maciel's victims that the priest be held to account, John Paul praised him instead. In late 2004, the pope celebrated Maciel for his "integral formation of the person" even as the sexual-abuse charges against him, dating from 1976, gathered dust in the Vatican.
In late 2004, the German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who has since become pope, clearly distanced himself from the dying John Paul by ordering an investigation of the allegations against Maciel. Under Ratzinger, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has historically tried theologians who publicly questioned church doctrines, had been dealing with hundreds of cases of pedophile priests whose bishops wanted them laicized. Ratzinger wanted to move Maciel's case to the top of the list. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's secretary of state, pressured Ratzinger to ignore a 1998 canon-law suit seeking Maciel's ouster. But Ratzinger realized that Maciel loomed as a potential scandal for the next pope. Sodano will soon retire.
In 1997, Gerald Renner and I wrote an investigation of sexual-abuse allegations against Maciel, profiling nine of his accusers, that was published in the Hartford Courant. Maciel declined to be interviewed for the piece, but he asserted his innocence in a statement. His lawyers threatened the newspaper with legal action and bombarded editors with documents seeking to discredit the accusers. In response to our requests for comment, the Vatican made no assertion of Maciel's innocence, not even a "no comment."
Eight of the men (one had died) from Mexico and Spain filed their canon law case with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith a year later. They accused Maciel of sexually assaulting them as young seminarians in the 1950s and 1960s. They also charged that he violated confession by forgiving their "sins" -- a crime in church law with no statute of limitations.
Juan Vaca, now a 69-year-old college professor on Long Island, first sent a petition to the Vatican in 1976, identifying himself and 20 others as victims of Maciel. A second ex-Legion priest corroborated his petition. The Vatican did nothing then. Nor in 1978 when Vaca tried again. Nor in 1989 when, upon leaving the priesthood, he wrote a detailed letter about Maciel to John Paul.
As Maciel hid from the media, a few Legion priests sought public roles. Mel Gibson used several as advisors in making "The Passion of the Christ." NBC News hired Father Thomas Williams, one of Maciel's foremost defenders, as an "ethics commentator" and on-camera analyst on papal succession, never mentioning his order or association with Maciel.
The Vatican communique expelling Maciel "gratefully recognized" the Legionaries and their lay wing, Regnum Christi, as independent of Maciel. Maciel admitted no wrongdoing, but accepted the decision "with complete serenity and tranquillity of conscience.... Following the example of Christ, he decided not to defend himself," according to a Legion statement.
A man accused of pedophilia by "more than 20 but less than 100" victims comparing himself to Jesus is hubris unknown even in our celebrity culture.
The Legionaries are now in spin control. They note that the Vatican held no trial and nothing was admitted. Ergo, they imply, the punishment could be wrong.
Maciel launched the Legion in 1941 in Mexico. The order is small, about 600 priests, but has branched into the U.S. with two dozen prep schools and two seminaries for teenage boys, an achievement made possible by Maciel's huge fundraising efforts. The Legion is built on a cult of personality. Maciel's picture hangs in every school, where children are taught that he is a living saint.
The Legion has 60,000 lay supporters in Regnum Christi. They are deeply orthodox. They study Maciel's letters in prayer groups. They must be in a spiritual freefall right now, and for that we must feel sympathy. They were betrayed.
Legionaries of Christ take a vow never to speak ill of Maciel and to report on anyone who does -- vows that, in effect, reward spying as an act of faith.
Pope Benedict has shattered the meaning of those vows. Now, the Vatican must install "visitators" -- outside clerics to oversee, and change, the internal culture -- in the order. If it does not, the Legion will continue to promote the myth of Maciel's innocence, undercutting Benedict's authority, even as it urges obedience to the pope.