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In Mexico, Catholic order is haunted by past

Worldwide, the Legion of Christ is struggling with the fallout of revelations that its late founder sexually abused boys, had affairs and had been addicted to drugs. But in Mexico, support is strong.

March 28, 2010|By Tracy Wilkinson
  • The Rev. Marcial Maciel is blessed by Pope John Paul II in 2004. Maciel was able to avoid sanction for decades, despite scandals and allegations of abuse, because the pope admired the Legion of Christ for its ability to generate wealth and recruit seminarians.
The Rev. Marcial Maciel is blessed by Pope John Paul II in 2004. Maciel was… (Plino Lepri / Associated…)

Reporting from Mexico City — He hobnobbed with Mexico's rich and famous, cut lucrative real estate deals and was rumored to travel on occasion with a briefcase full of cash. He fathered at least one child, molested seminarians and boys and is said to have boasted that he had the pope's permission to get massages from young nuns.

And all the while the conservative priest was building one of the most influential organizations in the Roman Catholic Church.

Two years after the death of the Rev. Marcial Maciel, a Mexico native, scandals continue to unfold: Just the other day in Mexico City, two brothers came forward, claiming tearfully that not only was Maciel their father, he had also sexually abused them.

Buffeted by the string of revelations, Maciel's powerful Legion of Christ is fighting for its survival in Rome, the headquarters of the church. But here in Mexico, where the Legion has long-standing ties with the ruling class and an expansive network of elite schools, the organization remains strong.

Rather than the desertions that some branches of the Legion have experienced in the United States and elsewhere, student enrollment in Legionary schools in Mexico grew by 6% to 8% last year, spokesman Javier Bravo said.

The order's assets are estimated by some to be worth $20 billion.

"Obviously there has been a lot of suffering and surprise from what we have learned about the founder," Bravo said. "Obviously Father Maciel was a great part of our founding period. But he will have to be reconsidered as an instrument rather than a model."

A few days after Bravo spoke to The Times, the Legionaries issued their most comprehensive apology to date for Maciel's "reprehensible" behavior. "Though it causes us consternation," the statement says, "we have to say that these acts did take place."

As the Catholic Church is rocked by scandals about abusive priests and the failure of its hierarchy to confront them, Maciel in many ways embodies the insidiousness of the problem.

Maciel was dogged for years by allegations that he sexually molested young men studying to be priests, had affairs with women and was a drug addict. He evaded sanction thanks in large part to the privileged status granted him by the late Pope John Paul II. Only in 2006 did John Paul's successor, Benedict XVI, discipline Maciel by ordering him to stop functioning as a priest; by then, Maciel was 85.

Maciel was popular at the Vatican because the Legion was one of the fastest growing orders in the Catholic Church, able to produce wealth and recruit priests at a time of declining memberships and severe shortages in the clergy -- and because it espoused the conservative brand of Catholicism that recent popes have favored.

Today the Legionaries, as they are known, operate in nearly 40 countries with 800 priests, 2,600 seminarians and a lay branch called Regnum Christi ("Christ's Kingdom") that has more than 75,000 members.

Though blessed by John Paul, the Legion had detractors the world over who, quite apart from the abuse allegations, criticized the secretive group's cult-like practices. Seminarians were cut off from their families, their mail routinely intercepted; barred from criticizing Maciel and instructed to report anyone who did; and made to adhere to a military-style discipline. A cult of personality developed around Maciel, revered as a hero destined for sainthood.

In Mexico, the key to Maciel's success was his ability to ingratiate himself with the country's top entrepreneurs and richest families. Charismatic, persuasive and good-looking in his younger days, Maciel amassed so much money from his benefactors that the Legionaries for Christ are sometimes ridiculed as the Millionaires for Christ.

"He was a wizard, really, a wizard," said Jose Barba, a Mexican historian and one of the first former seminarians to accuse Maciel of abusing him.

Maciel founded the Legion in 1941 and it took off in the decades that followed thanks to the times. Mexico was emerging from its anti-clerical revolutionary fervor. Maciel befriended an emerging cadre of well-positioned politicians, who tipped him to future development projects aimed at expanding Mexico City. He bought land before prices went up, using it to build sprawling university campuses.

An important boost came after the Second Vatican Council, the landmark papal review in the early 1960s that resolved, among other goals, to promote a preference for the poor. Orders such as the Jesuits moved to the left, to the chagrin of the traditional elite.

Enter Maciel. He told Mexico's wealthy that God loved them more than the poor, just what they wanted to hear.

One of his earliest and wealthiest benefactors was Flora Barragon de Garza, whose husband made his millions in paper and cardboard.

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