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God in the Hands of Angry Sinners

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.

3.

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.

4.

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.

  1. 12

    University of Illinois Press, 2000.

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