God in the Hands of Angry Sinners

The Passion of the Christ

a film directed by Mel Gibson


If you relish the sight of a healthy male body being systematically demolished, beyond the farthest reach of plausible endurance, The Passion of the Christ is your movie. It is not simply the scourging scene that is at issue, though that deals out an unspecified number of stripes—more than sixty and still counting, half of them inflicted by whips that have been made into multiple-hook tearing instruments. Even earlier, at the arrest of Jesus, he is chained, beaten over and over, thrown off a bridge to crash below. He arrives at his first legal hearing already mauled and with one eye closed behind swollen bruises. From then on, he is never moved or stopped without spontaneous blows and kicks and shoves from all kinds of bystanders wanting to get in on the fun. On the way to execution, he is whipped while fainting under the cross. A soldier says to lay off or he’ll never make it. But the crowd just keeps whipping and beating him all the rest of the way.

My wife and I had to stop glancing furtively at each other for fear we would burst out laughing. It had gone beyond sadism into the comic surreal, like an apocalyptic version of Swinburne’s The Whipping Papers. At one of several points where Gibson is following the mystical visions of an anti-Semitic Bavarian nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, he has Mary swab away at the lakes of blood sluiced out of Jesus by the scourging. In her book, first published in 1824, Sister Emmerich wrote:

When Jesus fell down at the foot of the pillar, after the flagellation, I saw Claudia Procles, the wife of Pilate, send some large pieces of linen to the Mother of God. I know not whether she thought that Jesus would be set free, and that his Mother would then require linen to dress his wounds, or whether this compassionate lady was aware of the use which would be made of her present…. [Mary] knelt down on the ground near the pillar, and wiped up the sacred blood with the linen which Claudia Procles had sent.1

But the nun did not see what a project Gibson would make of this effort. If Mary really wants to collect the blood, it will entail wiping down the scourgers, who are splattered all over with it. And at every later incident, new freshets of blood are drawn from an apparently inexhaustible source. Enough is left in Jesus’ body to spurt out all over the people below when his side is pierced to certify his death. If Gibson is making a theological point, that the blood is an abundant source of salvation, one wonders why the scourgers get more of it than the believers. It is not as though Gibson were a Universalist when it comes to salvation. He told The New Yorker that not merely non-Christians but nonorthodox Christians (including his wife) are going to hell.2

In Gibson’s film the union of the divine and human in Jesus is not explored or explicated. He is just a sponge for punishment. Which makes one wonder why so many call their viewing of the film a conversion experience. From what, or to what, are they being converted? From Christianity to philoflagellationism? Some fear that the real conversion will be to anti-Semitism, but Gibson says that he cannot be anti-Semitic because he killed Christ himself. All sinners did. To emphasize the point, he publicized that the hand in the film holding the first nail driven into Christ’s palm is Gibson’s own. But as we sinners watch the killers in this movie—the insane glee of those plotting against Jesus, lying about him, beating him, demanding his death, inflicting his death—do we really feel that they are our surrogates? We might, because of our sins, feel that we should empathize with them, but we cannot actually do so—the manipulation of the situation does not allow for that. With whom, then, are we to empathize—with Jesus, not so much because of our being saved by him as by our undergoing pain and humiliation with him? Certainly Gibson feels that empathy. He told Rachel Abramowitz of the Los Angeles Times: “I’m subjected to religious persecution, persecution as an artist, persecution as an American, persecution as a man.”3

Perhaps it is easier for Gibson than for some others to feel associated with his film victim, since his own movie characters have often been pulverized, brutalized, mangled by evil men and sinister organizations. If, in this case, he is the man being persecuted, who are his persecutors? The movie’s critics are. They are the real Christ-killers. Ra-mesh Ponnuru, a senior editor of National Review, said of the film that those “who choose to mock it” are “Christophobes.”4 Gibson has characterized resistance to his movie as resistance to Christ himself, to his suffering church:

I didn’t realize it would be so vicious…. The acts against this film started early. As soon as I announced I was doing it, it was “This is a dangerous thing.” There is vehement anti-Christian sentiment out there, and they don’t want it. It’s vicious…. There’s a huge war raging, and it’s over us!

Gibson finally removed (from the subtitles, not the Aramaic sound track) the verse taken from the Gospel of Saint Matthew—“His blood be on us, and on our children” (27.25)—after reflecting: “If I included that in there, they’d be coming after me at my house, they’d come kill me.”5 The “they” is ominous.

That mood is reflected in the large numbers of people who have praised the movie by attacking its critics. This may be at the root of the “religious” experience so many receive from the film. These people feel persecuted, like Gibson, victimized by a secular world or by unfaithful fellow Christians. The chosen groups Gibson showed the movie to at the outset included members of the Legion of Christ, an ultraconservative group that feels its fellow Catholics have deserted the true faith—the Legion is even included in the movie’s closing credits.

The alliances formed around the movie are interesting. Gibson has been supported not only by Legionaries of Christ but by members of Opus Dei, an equally conservative Catholic group. Although Gibson does not recognize the validity of the postconciliar Church or the current papacy, those two Catholic groups tried to manipulate a papal endorsement for the film—this despite the fact that Gibson violates almost all the guidelines concerning performances of the Passion issued in 1988 by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. For instance: “Jesus and his disciplines must not be set dramatically in opposition to his people, the Jews.” Or: “Displays of the menorah, tablets of the law, and other Jewish symbols should appear throughout the play and be connected with Jesus and his friends no less than with the Temple or with those opposed to Jesus.”6 Disregarding the bishops will not bother Legionaries, who think the bishops have betrayed the faith by not enforcing the Pope’s strictures on, for example, contraception.

Some see the cooperation of evangelical Christians, Catholics, and some conservative Jews in praising The Passion of the Christ an ecumenical aspect to the film. According to Stephen Prothero, a professor at Boston University, the movie may indicate that “while anti-Semitism is still alive in the United States, anti-Catholicism is finished.”7 But the bond between these groups is not ecumenical. The bond is religious extremism. What its admirers like is precisely the unflinching nature of the film, reflecting their own sense that a true church must make extreme demands. That other people do not accept the film just confirms their own sense that the world is against them. Casting about for some parallel to the conversion experiences prompted by the film made me look again at the choices for Christ made at nineteenth- century revivals of the sort led by Alex- ander Campbell, the early-nineteenth-century co-founder, with his father Thomas, of the Disciples of Christ. Those, too, were not doctrinal conversions, but emotional reactions to an extreme challenge. The people who underwent conversion were confronted with hell, and could be rescued only by self-surrender to the Lord—a surrender bolstered by the triumph over all those around who were not saved.

Even the great Jonathan Edwards was afraid that he was not going to have the experience of being saved registered by his neighbors. When he finally escaped that unsaved condition, and could number himself among the elect, he felt a great relief—the emotion most often expressed after “awakening.” Because the revivals have been such an important part of American history, the conversion experience has been extensively studied, and the results of survey after survey are remarkably stable.8 Two thirds of religious conversions are gradual, the result of intellectual and emotional quest. Only a third are sudden. Conversions usually occur to adolescents, the sudden ones early in one’s teens, the slower ones later. I thought of that when I noticed that much of the audience was young at the theater where I saw the film, and most of those who were standing in line for the next showing were also young—many of them teenagers.

It was young people who were especially responsive to Edwards’s first great awakening. But he soon found that their fervor cooled. Their separation from the unsaved was quietly abandoned. Their conversion had been triggered by hellfire. Gibson’s unrelenting, unforgiving vision of punishment is similar. Edwards’s theme was “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” Gibson gives us “God in the hands of angry sinners.” Behind both these minatory visions stands a bloodthirsty Father, damning and punishing. It can be said in Gibson’s defense that he was not narrowly anti-Semitic when he wanted to include the verse from Matthew 27.25. He sees vast hordes becoming subject to God’s vengeance, to be carried off to hell. He offers equal opportunity damnation. Saint Augustine came to see that this view of a vengeful father was unworthy of God, and abandoned the “ransom” theory of Christ’s death,9 the notion that the death of Christ was a price paid to God in order to bring about the redemption of humanity.

Not many thinkers have followed Augustine’s lead in this, although the philosopher René Girard has done so brilliantly.10 But without formal theological reasoning, most Christians have quietly realized that God the inflicter of eternal torture is not a concept they can live with. The recent and rapid fading of belief in hell is one of the things that conservatives deplore. “Real men” support hell—even for their wives. It is hellfires that are warming the hearts of the “tough love” Christians who watch Gibson’s Jesus being beaten into a mess.

The way this film of bludgeoning can be used as a bludgeon came home to me as I talked with a friend who is a fundamentalist looking forward to seeing the movie. While we talked, he got a phone call from his wife. Their pastor was not only encouraging but requiring his congregation to see the film, for which group tickets had been bought. She had called the pastor to say that she was having back trouble and, though she did plan to see the movie later on, she did not want to go now. The pastor would not take that as an answer. He insisted. She was calling her husband to ask him what she could do. They agonized over the problem while I withdrew. It seemed unlikely that she, or anyone, could get an exemption on the grounds that she dislikes films of excessive violence. In the past, some conservatives have been critical of Hollywood for indulgence in that. But when the sadism is sacred, people must be forced to see it, the bloodier the better.



The Legion of Christ

The Legion of Christ, an international religious order, is one of several very conservative Catholic groups on which the current pope has showered favors, allowing its members to operate outside the normal structures of dioceses or traditional religious orders (to the dismay of some authorities in both realms). Founded in Mexico in 1941, it claims 2,500 seminarians and 600 priests on five continents, and it has organized many schools. In the US alone, the Legion says it has nearly 400 seminarians and 90 priests among its members.

Despite Mel Gibson’s opposition to this pope, the Legionaries cooperated with him in promoting The Passion of the Christ at the Vatican, apparently on the principle that, where the Christian religion is concerned, pas d’ennemi à droite—a corollary of the group’s more frequently mobilized principle, as applied to the majority of Catholics, pas d’ami à gauche.

The Legion has had serious troubles with Church leaders in the past, but since the highest authority, the Pope, began to favor its members, the order has grown in recent decades and is now second only to Opus Dei in the circle of ultraconservative papal favorites (lesser ones are Focolare and the New Catechumenate). The Legionaries now run eleven universities in different countries, with ambitious plans for more, and 150 prep schools, some of them in the US. Their principal apostolate is in education, where they feel the Jesuit order has forfeited its claim to be the teaching order of the Church. They say they are “re-Christianizing” Catholicism. The Legion promises conservative Catholic parents to teach their children the religion those parents grew up with. Some who are attracted to the Legion are parents “homeschooling” their children because they find the parochial schools too liberal.

Since the Legionaries draw on a very conservative pool of young men for their schools, and proselytize them intensely for vocations to their order, they are able to fill their seminaries at a time when the dioceses are finding it hard to recruit new priests. One of the things the Pope likes about the group is its ordination rate. The blessing, in Rome’s eyes, is not the sheer numbers of Legion priests, but their orthodoxy on points of the Pope’s special concern, including his detailed sexual proscriptions (against masturbation, homosexuality, marriage for priests, premarital sex; and, within marriage, against condoms even for spouses with AIDS, against diaphragms, the birth control pill, the morning-after pill, vas- ectomy, tubal ligation, and in vitro fertilization). The fact that the Legion and other conservative groups can sign up young men who will support all those proscriptions proves, according to conservatives, that the priest shortage would disappear overnight if diocesan seminaries just “returned to Catholicism.” This neglects the fact that the conservative seminaries are full receptacles drawn from a tiny pool—from the small and continually shrinking minority of Catholics who agree with that long list of papal bans.

Because the Legion feels that it is at odds not only with the world but with most Catholics, it has a need to defend itself against misunderstanding, and against deliberate misrepresentation, by keeping its operations as private as it can—which turns out to be more private than one would have thought possible in a world of open communication. What members can say to outsiders is prescribed and monitored. Legion priests who take the normal three religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience add a noncanonical “promise”—normally referred to as the fourth vow—never to criticize the order, and to report those who do. The book under review, Vows of Silence, takes its title from this fourth promise and from its ancillary disciplines of privacy. This extra promise is like the fourth vow taken by “professed” Jesuits, though the Jesuit vow looks outward, “to go wherever the Pope may send me,” rather than inward, toward protecting the order.

The Legion’s fear of misrepresentation is understandable, given the criticisms leveled at it in the past, often from Catholic officials at various levels. This fear can become a self-fulfilling prophecy—it is hard to describe accurately an organization that gives out little or no information but its high professions of apostolic purpose—yet the Legion feels there is no loss entailed by this noncommunicative policy. Non-Catholics, its leaders seem to think, do not know or care about the order, and could never understand it anyway, so why waste time on a fruitless effort at dialogue with them? And most Catholics, who have gone (in the Legion’s view) into virtual schism, just want to prevent the order from protecting the orthodoxy of its embattled few. Since the future of the Church depends, they believe, on this saving remnant, which will lead the re-Christianizing, these few must be kept out of the line of fire until they have reached critical mass. Only at that point will they be able to win back the unwitting schismatics and extrude the deliberate ones. Members thus submit to a discipline of silence because it is meant to protect them and their future mission. A secret leaven is working for the redemption of Catholicism. This is, thus, a church within a church, but it is the Church. It cannot be a fringe group, since it is favored by the center, by the Pope, who is also the Church. If he is with them, who can be against them?

This kind of secret operation from an authoritative base is hard to maintain in the modern world of democratic values and pluralistic tolerance. But defying such “fads” is part of the Legion’s pride and reason for being. It holds to pre–Vatican II Catholic teachings that were typified by Pope Pius IX, a man beatified by the current pope. Pius IX prompted the definition of papal infallibility and issued the Syllabus of Errors, which condemned democracy, freedom of the press, religious pluralism, and belief in progress.

After being founded in Mexico, the Legion grew up not only before Vatican II but in the most conservative enclave of the pre–World War II church, Francisco Franco’s Spain. In this, the Legion resembles its elder brother in orthodoxy, Opus Dei—it was an Opus priest who conducted Franco’s annual spiritual retreat.11 Both the Legion and Opus are not embarrassed about their past ties with Franco and his circle, or with the ideals formed there. Both groups revere their founders, who admired Franco—respectively Marcial Maciel Degollado and Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer. Escrivá was and Maciel is a very “preconciliar” man. Pope John Paul II has already canonized, on the fastest of imaginable fast tracks, Escrivá. Maciel is still alive at eighty-three, but his followers expect his canonization too. (His uncle has already been beatified by John Paul.)

Since the order moves only in the most conservative available ambience, one might think it would be safe there. But, paradoxically, its most trenchant and active critics are conservatives. Since few know much about the order except those who have worked with it—members or allies, or parents and other relatives of members or allies—only they have the information to use against the order, if they care to do so. And many do. They are people who believed in the order and worked with it (often at high levels or for long times) and became disillusioned with its procedures. These disillusioned people have created networks and Web sites to warn others of what they learned only through bitter experience. They were very conservative when they became associated with the Legion, and are mainly conservative still. So the Legion’s own sense of persecution is reinforced—not only liberal Catholics but misguided conservatives are trying to bring it down.


The Hartford Courant

Secrecy can be self-defeating. The book reviewed here proves that. Its initiating author, the journalist Gerald Renner, was provoked to look into the order by its mysterious proximity to his own base in Connecticut, where he was the religion reporter of The Hartford Courant. It was not in Connecticut but in Rome that he first heard of the Legion. While covering a bishops’ meeting in 1989, Renner was given a ride to the Vatican with Hartford’s archbishop, John Whealon, a friend, who pointed out the world headquarters of the Legion as they drove past it. Did Renner know its American seminary was in Cheshire, Connecticut, just twenty-five miles from where the two of them lived? Renner had not even heard of the order, much less of its Connecticut connection. That surprised him. He thought he knew a good deal about his own church, as well as the others he covered for the newspaper.

Renner had been a press officer for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1965 to 1967, then the information director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, before becoming the executive director of its Chicago and Baltimore branches. From 1976 to 1985, he was the director of Religious News Service, before becoming religion reporter of the Courant. One might think that, with this background, not much on the religion front would escape his notice, especially in his own church, in his own neighborhood, in his own field of professional responsibility. Yet in four years at the Courant, he had not heard or read a word about the Legion, not in any of his interviews with Catholic or other religious leaders. Nor was he alone. For the three years before he came, his predecessor at the paper’s religion desk seemed not to have heard of it. From the time when it opened its seminary in 1982, there was not a single newsclip about it in the paper’s files. No word of its arrival in the area, of when and how it purchased its property (or even where it was), or of any contacts with churches or charities or community activities in the state. Nothing.

That intrigued Renner. He thought he should remedy his own ignorance, in order to inform his readers about what was going on in their midst. He soon learned the reason for that ignorance. When he called the seminary, he was told that only one person was authorized to speak about it, its director, Father Anthony Bannon, who was not currently available. Renner requested a call from him when he became available. No call came. Each time Renner telephoned the seminary, he got the same answer—Father Bannon could not be reached.

Like any good journalist, Renner did not give up easily. He drove to the seminary and asked to speak with anyone who would admit him. He was turned away from the door, since entry was only by permission of Father Bannon, who was not available to grant such permission. Finally, in 1993, Renner called again and Father Bannon himself happened to pick up the phone. He had reached the source at last, but the source refused to be a source. He did not want to speak, because “we have had disappointing experience with the press.” He would grant an interview only if he had the right to see and approve the copy before it appeared. Renner said that was not the policy of his paper (or of any serious paper). Then there would be no interview.

That was supposed to be the end of notice of the group from The Hartford Courant. If Bannon had his way, the newspaper would continue its non-coverage of whatever was going on in Cheshire. Renner thought Bannon should not so easily get his way. He followed normal journalistic procedure and consulted the public records of Connecticut. He found that the Connecticut Department of Education had authorized the seminary to grant high school diplomas. (Most Catholic dioceses have discontinued their “minor seminaries” for adolescents, on the grounds that the students were not mature enough to choose the priesthood—a policy reinforced when priestly sexual abuse entered the news.) Public records also showed who bought the Cheshire property and who currently held the mortgage (the Connecticut branch of Knights of Columbus).

Renner found another Legion property in Connecticut to report on from the public records, though the Legion made this difficult. Lay friends of the Legion had just bought the National Catholic Register and Twin Circle from the conservative Catholic Patrick Frawley in 1992, and moved the publishing operation from Los Angeles to Hamden, Connecticut. The purchasers formed a not-for-profit corporation in New York, where board members do not have to be identified. When Renner called the lawyer who speaks for the corporation, the man said he was not authorized to tell him anything but what was on the public record. He should ask the fathers of the Legion for any further information (Renner knew by now how productive that would be).

The Frawley publications were moved to a Hamden property owned by another nonprofit corporation, Rossotto Inc., whose members by Connecticut law did have to be identified—Anthony Bannon was one member (no information to be extracted there). Renner wrote an account of the Legion’s two Connecticut holdings, with the headline “Catholic Legionaries Expand Base in State.” It was the Courant’s first notice of the Legion (March 25, 1996). Based simply on public records, it showed no hostility to the order.

But the appearance of even a neutral story showed why the Legion is wise to avoid publicity of any sort. Renner instantly began to get calls from people disaffected with the Legion. Two young men said that they had run away from the Cheshire seminary despite efforts to retain them, and that their belongings were not returned when they asked for them. When Renner faxed Bannon for his comments on the matter, there was no answer, so he ran a story with the headline: “Order’s Leader Withholds Comment on Allegations.” Bannon did then make an answer, saying that there was no coercion at the seminary, no deprivation of students, and that the article contained many other inaccuracies (unspecified).

What happened next should not have surprised Renner, but it did. Given the emphasis on young boys in the order, and their early admission to study for the priesthood, and the draconian sexual views enforced in their surroundings, one might expect some of the sexual problems manifested elsewhere in the priesthood. And, sure enough, Renner began to get such reports. One priest friend said that he should consult Jason Berry in New Orleans, who had more information about Legionaries. Renner called Berry, who had been receiving similar reports, though he had not, like Renner, prompted them by writing on the Legion. In fact, when the first call came to him, he too had not heard of the organization. The privacy policy of the Legion was obviously very successful. (I should say that I had also not heard of the group until I was told about it, even later, when I was in Rome talking with the BBC’s Vatican correspondent, David Willey.)

Ex-Legionaries called Berry because he published the first exposé of priestly sexual abuse, back in the 1980s, when he reported on Father Gilbert Gauthe, a serial predator as horrid as the more famous ones exposed later in Boston. Berry’s articles were later expanded into the trailblazing book on priestly abuse, Lead Us Not into Temptation.12 By the time Renner called him, Berry had heard from ex-Legionaries in California and Mexico. The man calling from Mexico said that he was speaking for six other men who had suffered sexual abuse in the Legion. Berry, who was busy with other writing projects, asked to see depositions from all of these men—which were duly sent him.

Renner was taking seriously two accusers in his part of the country, one in Connecticut and one on Long Island. The two writers decided to pool their knowledge. They would like to follow up on these leads, but it would be a major project, involving trips to Mexico and Rome to check out allegations. Renner asked that the Courant hire Berry as a temporary special correspondent, to work with him on a series about the Legion. The Courant courageously did so, though it—like most newspapers that report on shortcomings in the Catholic community—was getting angry protests from the faithful. The charges Renner and Berry wanted to investigate all told the same story, and all of them revolved around one man, the founder of the Legion, Marcial Maciel Degollado.


The Founder

As was earlier noticed, the Legion’s founder is still alive, and still in authority, though the order began in 1941. This long tenure was made possible by the fact that Maciel got such an early start as a religious founder. Saint Dominic, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Ignatius Loyola were mature men when they established their orders. They had seen much of the world and reflected on what it needed from dedicated priests and religious. But Maciel was only twenty when he set up his order, two days after New Year’s Day 1941, in Mexico City. His first members were thirteen boys even younger than himself. He was not yet a priest—he would not be ordained for another three years. In fact, he had been expelled from two seminaries, one of them run by the uncle whom John Paul beatified, the other by Jesuits (who haunt his story as an evil force). The literature of the order ascribes these and later ecclesiastical differences to the narrowness of men unable to comprehend the high dream of the blessed young Maciel. That dream had come to him during Mass in 1936, when Maciel was sixteen, telling him to “form a group of priests who would enthusiastically and generously devote themselves to spreading the kingdom of Jesus Christ.”

By his own account, not all of Maciel’s teenage experiences were mystical. He says he tended the wounded who fell in the Cristero War—the Catholic resistance to the anticlerical government of Plutarco Elías Calles described in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. Another of Maciel’s uncles was a general in that war, and Maciel himself, at sixteen, became by his own account a hero of the resistance. An authorized Legion booklet, written by one of its priests, Alberto Villasana, tells the story: Maciel had marched with fellow Catholics to the hall of Orizaba, in Veracruz, to demand that the local church be opened. After meeting with the authorities, he came out on the balcony:

From the balcony Maciel calms the crowds, thus demonstrating the organization and cohesion of the movement. Then he climbs onto the top of an army truck in the middle of the square and tells the people that their requests have been heard. Some praise him, and others threaten him, thinking that he has sold out to the government. When he arrives at the parish, he shows the truth of his words by bringing the keys out from the rectory and opening the church.

In these busy teen years of mystical experience, hospital duties, church opening, and seminary expulsions, Maciel had little time for getting an education. It might be remembered that Ignatius Loyola, when he gave up life as a soldier, recognized the inadequacy of his learning and went back as an adult to share a classroom with schoolboys, receiving the basic knowledge required to enter the universities he would attend. Maciel, by contrast, was teaching schoolboys when he was twenty, and founded an order devoted to education without acquiring one himself. As the leader of his order, he would depend heavily on secretaries, even for simple things like grammar and spelling. Unlike other founders of religious orders, he has not only written little, but has written nothing of importance. Francis wrote “The Canticle of the Sun,” Ignatius The Spiritual Exercises, Dominic a solid body of sermons—Christian classics all. From Maciel we have a late self-praising memoir.

After World War II ended, Maciel shifted the center of his order from Mexico to Spain, with many of its operations being carried out in Rome. He claims to have become an intimate of Pope Pius XII, given special privileges by him, though there seems to be no documentary confirmation of that. He clearly longed for the kind of relationship he would succeed in establishing with John Paul II. One of the bonds between Maciel and John Paul may be a shared reverence for Pius XII, whose canonization John Paul has tried to encourage. Despite the favor Pius XII was supposed to be showing Maciel, the Vatican during Pius’s reign suspended him from leadership in his order for two years (1956–1958) while investigating charges against him. The Legion calls this the time of the War. Maciel calls it the Great Blessing, since it gave him a chance to suffer false accusation as Jesus had.

Two men with responsibilities in the Legion, Maciel’s secretary, Federico Dominguez, and the director of his Mexican seminary, Luis Ferreira Correa, testified that Maciel was abusing drugs (Demerol) and had engaged in sexual misconduct with boys. The order later said that the investigation was over alleged use of drugs and alleged financial irregularities—sexual abuse had not even been mentioned. But the two men who brought the charges say it was. Maciel’s followers denied all the charges—resentment at Ferreira for bringing them was so great that one seminarian said he put laxatives in Ferreira’s coffee every morning. Maciel was cleared, and resumed his role with the Legion, which he retains to this day.


The Accusers

Among those clearing Maciel between 1956 and 1958 are some of the men now accusing him. They say they lied then because they were in thrall to the man. They had all entered the order young (two of them were ten), from families that thought priests could do no wrong. Each had won the charismatic Maciel’s special favor, in a community where everyone competed for that honor. They were privileged by his revelations of great suffering (for which they injected him with Demerol), considered him a saint and oracle; they believed his assurances that their intimacy was spiritual and had been specifically exempted from prohibition by Pius XII’s concern for Maciel’s pain. Even after they left the Legion, they kept silent. Some thought they alone had been abused, and they would not be believed, even by their own relatives, some of whom were in the Legion or its lay arm, Regnum Christi.

The Legion says these are bitter conspirators, who want to destroy Maciel because they were not successful in the Legion and have waited half a century to get their revenge. But these are not the victims we became familiar with in some of the recent scandals—boys so scarred that their lives were ruined. This is not said to denigrate such victims—it would doubly victimize them not to see how much responsibility their abusers bear. Nonetheless, the men bringing the charges against Maciel have had successful professional lives, which they are ending honorably. They have had their troubles, as have all men who reach their later years. But they are not trying to blame someone else for personal failure. Moreover, they have never asked for money, or threatened a civil suit. Their complaints have gone through the proper canonical channels in the Church itself. The first of these went to Rome in 1976, through Bishop John Raymond McGann of the Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, Long Island.

McGann was acting on information brought to him by Juan Vaca, a priest who had asked to be transferred from the Legion to the diocesan priesthood. In support of this request, Vaca gave McGann a long letter he had written to Maciel, recounting his own experience of being sexually abused and that of other men he knew. He wrote:

…You, on that night, in the midst of my terrible confusion and anguish, ripped the masculine virginity from me. I had arrived at the Legion in my childhood, with no sexual experience of any kind…. It was you who initiated the aberrant and sacrilegious abuse that night; the abuse that would last for thirteen painful years.

He gave the names and addresses of twenty men, who “personally told me that you committed the same sexual abuses against them, whose names I place before God as a Witness.” Most of the men were in Mexico or Spain, but one was in McGann’s own diocese, for which he had left the Legion to join the diocesan clergy. McGann asked this man, Félix Alarcón, if he could confirm what Vaca was alleging. Alarcón, who had never spoken of his abuse, answered yes: “I would have taken this to my grave, but when my bishop asked me to verify what Vaca said, I was in the fray.”

McGann consulted his diocesan canon lawyer, Father John Alesandro, on what he should do with such information. Alesandro thought they were obliged to report a serious charge made by serious men still loyal to the Church, still continuing their ministry as priests (Vaca, but not Alarcón, would later leave the priesthood). Alesandro sent Vaca’s letter and a report on the questioning of both Vaca and Alarcón to the apostolic delegate in Washington, for submission to the Vatican. McGann did not have the resources to check the other names on Vaca’s list. But surely the Vatican did. Yet nothing came back from the Vatican—no request for further information, no indication of any action to be taken, no results from questioning others on Vaca’s list. It is unlikely that others were ever questioned, since Alarcón was not asked by Rome to confirm what he had said.

Two years later, Vaca decided to try again. He wrote a letter to the newly elected pope, John Paul II, and Alesandro once more submitted it to the apostolic delegate. This time, the Sacred Congregation for Religious in Rome sent a receipt, saying the message had been delivered. And then? Nothing. When Renner heard of this earlier complaint to Rome, he sought out Alesandro and asked what the canonist thought had happened to the complaint. Alesandro answered: “It was our duty to get this stuff into the right hands. I don’t know why it was not acted on…. It’s a substantive allegation that should have been acted on.” Alarcón said, “It’s amazing. There are big people in Rome who are avoiding this.” Vaca would try again, ineffectually, in 1989. Rome, he thought, was bound to hear, but three times it proved deaf.

Renner interviewed Vaca, then a guidance counselor at the City University of New York, and Alarcón at his Long Island parish, while Berry was following up on reports from the men who had called him. The first he heard from was Arturo Jurado Guzmán, a man stable enough to have security clearance from the government to teach at the United States Department of Defense School of Languages in Monterey, California. The second was José de Jesús Barba Martin. Barba had earned a doctorate in Latin American Studies at Harvard while still in the Legion, and after he left he became a professor at the Istituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México. He had a good life, and no desire to upset it with controversy over the distant past. But he was deeply disturbed in 1994, when Mexico’s newspapers featured stories of the fiftieth anniversary of Maciel’s ordination to the priesthood, on which the Pope enthusiastically praised him. It was disturbing, too, to see Maciel traveling as an honored part of the Pope’s retinue whenever he visited Mexico.

Barba decided to contact men he thought or knew had been abused as he was. He found six willing to give depositions. When news of this reached Alarcón in Long Island, he wrote Barba regretting that he had believed he was alone in suffering abuse, so that “I was not in a position to help anybody else. I did not know that the abuse reached so many of you.” Now, he said, he felt obliged to support the men going public: “As far as I am concerned, I should have preferred to remain silent, but is it clear now that my only choice is to make common cause with our suffering.”

Berry flew from New Orleans and Jurado from California to confer with Barba’s men in Mexico. They were now six instead of seven, since one of them had withdrawn his accusations. Miguel Diaz Rivera, a law professor, had given Berry a detailed account of his sexual molestation by Maciel in a two-hour phone call in November 1996, and repeated the charges in a sworn affidavit in January 1997. But then he issued through the Legion’s lawyer a second affidavit denying the first. He would not answer requests for interviews. The Legion said he had been lured into a conspiracy—but why would he have told such a detailed story to Berry? To prove that there was a conspiracy, the Legion issued the statements of four people who resisted entering the conspiracy:

Two of them turned out to be on the Legion’s payroll in Mexico City; a third worked for Maciel’s brother; the fourth was a businessman with children in a Legion school. One of the men in a telephone interview could not remember details of the supposed meetings to hatch a conspiracy—though he insisted, with a rather amazing leap of logic, that he stood by his assertions of meetings that he could not recall.

The Legion was on the counterattack. It especially focused on a man who had signed a deathbed deposition detailing his abuse by Maciel when he was a Legionary. Juan Manuel Fernández Amenábar had been the president of the Legion’s main university in Mexico City. But after he left the Legion he had a series of strokes that left him speechless. In the hospital, a young internist (now a doctor) gave him speech therapy. He recovered his speech and was in sound mind when he signed his deposition. That is vouched for by the internist, by Amenábar’s confessor (a distinguished priest, the vice-president of Caritas, the Church’s welfare agency), and by a distinguished psychologist, who signed a sworn statement on Amenábar’s capacity. But the Legion released a statement by a psychologist associated with the Legion, who had visited Amenábar and said he was incompetent. When Amenábar died, an unknown priest showed up and removed his private papers.

It was at Amenábar’s funeral in 1995 that the nine remaining accusers determined to take their case to Rome. Barba had consulted with Antonio Roqueñi, a canon lawyer with the Mexico City archdiocesan tribunal. Roqueñi was a conservative man who had belonged to Opus Dei and left it amicably, but who knew and believed Amenábar. Roqueñi knew the procedures of the Vatican. Since the Pope and the congregations had not responded to direct complaints, the only way to force the matter on their attention was a canonical suit. The Church’s statute of limitations on sexual abuse had run out, but there was no limitation on what is known in canon law as “complicit absolution”: for a priest to absolve a person with whom he has committed a crime is sacrilegious, the abuse of a sacrament. Several of the accusers said that Maciel had heard their confessions on the sexual acts they performed with him.

Roqueñi found one of the Vatican’s authorized canon lawyers, Martha Wegan, to present the men’s case to the proper tribunal, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome (the former organ of the Inquisition), presided over by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Wegan took Barba, Jurado, and Roqueñi to present their case personally to one of Ratzinger’s three secretaries, on October 17, 1998. The secretary told them the case would be duly considered, but they must not speak to the press. They promised to abide by that admonition, and did so for two years. But when things they had said before opening this canonical case were quoted in the press, Vatican officials they tried to speak to about the case repeated to them: “You should not have spoken to the press.” For some, that was enough to disqualify them.

Six years have passed since the case was presented, and attempts to get some report or result have failed. When José Barba complained of this to Martha Wegan in 2002, she said something that seems to throw a blinding shaft of light not only on this affair but on the whole attitude of the hierarchy toward priests’ sins. His own lawyer told Barba, “Perhaps it was better for eight innocent men to suffer than thousands of people losing their faith.” If their own lawyer can tell them that in presenting their case, what is to be expected from the prelates hearing the case?

Vows of Silence is a powerful and important book, but it is not as powerful as it should be. The authors unnecessarily confuse their main tale by running a parallel story of the Dominican canonist Thomas Doyle, who gave an early warning to American bishops on the potential for sexual abuse scandal, and who has been a friend and advocate of abuse victims. Perhaps Renner and Berry thought they would give balance to the book by describing a priest who cares, but doing so makes them bring up many of the abuse cases Doyle has been involved in—stories already widely reported by others. In my view, they should have concentrated on the Maciel case, for which they have done extraordinary research and produced very plausible evidence.

Even if the accusers of Maciel are wrong, the treatment of their complaints by the Vatican and the weak arguments offered by the Legion are disturbing in themselves. The accusations against Maciel deserved serious investigation, but seem to have received none, beginning with the list of twenty names sent by Bishop McGann in 1976. As McGann’s canonist said, “It’s a substantive allegation that should have been acted on.” That is troubling, apart even from any judgment that might have been reached in the matter. But if the men are telling the truth, that raises a far more dismaying prospect. If they are right, if Maciel is in fact a pedophile protected by the Vatican itself, then there is a black hole at the center of the institutional Catholic Church.

  1. 1

    Anne Catherine Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Lulu, 2004), p. 210.

  2. 2

    Peter J. Boyer, “The Jesus War: Mel Gibson’s Obsession,” The New Yorker, September 15, 2003, p. 71.

  3. 3

    Rachel Abramowitz, Los Angeles Times, February 15, 2004, p. A1.

  4. 4

    Ramesh Ponnuru, “A Movie and Its Meaning,” National Review, March 8, 2004, p. 32.

  5. 5

    See Boyer, “The Jesus War.”

  6. 6

    Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion,” by the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, 1988, in The Bible, the Jews, and the Death of Jesus: A Collection of Documents (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2004), pp. 76–78.

  7. 7

    Stephen Prothero, “The Personal Jesus,” The New York Times Magazine, February 29, 2004, p. 30.

  8. 8

    There is a very good survey of the studies made from conversion, dating from 1883 on, in Alan F. Segal, Paul the Convert (Yale University Press, 1990), pp. 285–300.

  9. 9

    Saint Augustine, “Analysis of Some Theses in the Letter to the Romans 48.”

  10. 10

    René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, translated by Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford University Press, 1987).

  11. 11

    Joan Estruch, Saints and Schemers: Opus Dei and Its Paradoxes (Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 131.

  12. 12

    University of Illinois Press, 2000.