Plinio Lepri/AP Images

Pope John Paul II blessing Father Marcial Maciel at the Vatican, November 30, 2004

Of all the terrible sexual scandals the hierarchs in the Vatican find themselves tangled in, none is likely to do more institutional damage than the astounding and still unfolding story of the Mexican priest Marcial Maciel. The crimes committed against children by other priests and bishops may provoke rage, but they also make one want to look away. With Father Maciel, on the other hand, one can hardly tear oneself from the ghastly drama as it unfolds, page by page, revelation by revelation, in the Mexican press.

Father Maciel, who was born in Mexico and died in 2008 at the age of eighty-seven, was known around the Catholic world. Against ordinarily insurmountable obstacles, he founded what was to become one of the most dynamic, profitable, and conservative religious orders of the twentieth century, which today has almost eight hundred priests and approximately 70,000 men and women around the world who participate in the lay movement Regnum Christi. The Legion of Christ, nearly seventy years old as an order, is comparatively small, but it is influential: it operates fifteen universities, and some 140,000 students are enrolled in its schools (in New York, its members teach in eleven parish schools). And its leadership has long enjoyed remarkable access to the Vatican hierarchy.

A great achiever and close associate of Pope John Paul II, Maciel was also a bigamist, pederast, dope fiend, and plagiarist. He came from the fervently religious state of Michoacán in the southwest of Mexico and grew up during the years of the Cristero War (1926–1929), a savage conflict that pitched traditional Catholics (Cristeros) in provincial Mexico against the anticlerical government in the capital. One of his uncles was the commanding general of the Cristeros. Another four uncles were bishops. One of them, Rafael Guízar Valencia, brought him into a clandestine seminary in Mexico City. As a twenty-year-old who had not even taken his vows, Maciel created a new religious order with the help of another uncle.

The new order was intended to be both cosmopolitan and strict, but given its founder’s young age and general lack of education, it is not surprising that the Legion of Christ’s aims were poorly defined (although in a fascinating study of Maciel by the historian and psychoanalyst Fernando M. González we learn that one of the order’s statutes specified that priests should be decenti sint conspectu, attractione corripiant, or graceful and attractive). At the age of twenty-seven the young Father Maciel had an audience with Pope Pius XII, who, according to the Legionaries’ official history, urged him to use the order “to form and to win for Christ the leaders of Latin America and the world.” This has been the order’s unwavering mission for six decades, and with remarkable speed it emerged as a conservative force to rival even Opus Dei.

“Maciel’s discourse was very much within the anti-Communist discourse of Francisco Franco,” says Roberta Garza Medina, who is the editor of the weekly magazine Milenio, and also the sister of the vicar general of the Legionaries. The Legionaries’ conservatism, she adds,

above all was expressed in their posture regarding gender roles. Women had to assume a passive stance. It was motherhood or participation in the [unmarried] consecrated movement…. Maciel wasn’t terribly interested in politics as such: he was interested in hooking the people with power into the movement and milking them.

But for the conservative movement within the Church, a former priest adds, “Maciel was someone who could supply faithful, priests, and money.”

Maciel was evidently a man of some magnetism. Dozens of wealthy women contributed generous amounts for the Legionaries’ good works, and the Mexican magazine Quién, normally known for its society pages and not for its investigative reporting, recently had a story about one of Mexico’s wealthiest widows, Flora Barragán de Garza, who donated upward of $50 million during the years of Maciel’s glory. “She gave him practically all our father’s fortune,” Barragán’s daughter told the Quién interviewer, adding that the family finally had to intervene so that the by then elderly woman would not be left destitute. Her generosity allowed Maciel to travel first-class throughout his peripatetic life, but it also provided the seed money for the network of private schools to which wealthy Mexican conservatives dispatched their children.

In 1997, Blanca Estela Lara Gutiérrez, a Mexican woman who was living in Cuernavaca, looked at the cover of the magazine Contenido—a Reader’s Digest sort of publication—and saw on it the face of her common-law husband. She had been his partner for twenty-one years and borne him two children, and she knew him as a private detective or “CIA agent” who, for understandable work-related reasons, put in only occasional appearances at home. Now she learned that he was a priest and that his real name was Marcial Maciel. He was, the magazine said, the head of an order whose strictness and extreme conservatism appeared to hide some vile secrets: the article, picking up information first brought to light by Gerald Renner and Jason Berry in the Hartford Courant, revealed that nine men—two of whom helped to establish the Legionaries in the US and another still an active member, and the rest all former members of the order—had informed their superiors in Rome that Maciel had abused them sexually when they were pubescent seminarians under his care.


The accusations were not new, nor would they be the last. In 1938 Maciel was expelled from his uncle Guízar’s seminary, and shortly afterward from a seminary in the United States. According to witnesses, Maciel and his uncle had a gigantic row behind closed doors, and one witness, a Legionary who had known Maciel since childhood, told the psychoanalyst Fernando González that the bishop’s rage had to do with the fact that Maciel was locking himself up in the boardinghouse where he was staying with some of the younger boys at his uncle’s seminary. Bishop Guízar died of a massive heart attack the following day.

Later, it would become known that Maciel had his students and seminarians procure Dolantin (morphine) for him. This led to Maciel’s suspension as head of the order in 1956. Inexplicably, he was reinstated after two years. Much later still, someone realized that his book, The Psalter of My Days, which was more or less required reading in Legionary institutions, and was a sort of Book of Hours, or prayer guide, was lifted virtually in its entirety from The Psalter of My Hours, an account written by a Spaniard who was sentenced to life in prison after the Spanish civil war.

Uneducated and mendacious, Maciel nevertheless had a genius for politics, and for personal relations. But there was more: in a series of articles for the National Catholic Reporter, the tireless Jason Berry has detailed the various mechanisms by which Maciel received money and then channeled it to the Vatican. Maciel’s envoys would regularly deliver envelopes with thousands of dollars in cash to key Church hierarchs. Private audiences with the Pope commanded as much as $50,000 dollars per visit, money that was channeled through Stanisław Dziwisz, the Polish priest who was the Pope’s private secretary from 1966 until John Paul’s death.

According to a former Jesuit with good knowledge of the story, one of the very first sizable donations that the Polish Solidarity movement received came from Maciel, who raised the money among the conservative Mexican elite he had so steadfastly cultivated. No doubt the Polish Karol Wojtyła, by then John Paul II, heard about this act of generosity and appreciated Maciel’s ideological stance. Maciel was at John Paul’s side throughout the first three of the Pope’s five visits to Mexico: Legionary money, its priests, and its very active laypersons’ movement, the Regnum Christi, strengthened the Pope’s campaign to remove socially radical or liberal priests from positions of power and give ascendancy to his conservative Catholicism.

It is hard not to think that these are the reasons the Vatican ignored the detailed and heart-wrenching letter sent in 1998 by eight of Maciel’s accusers (the ninth member of the group having died). Even as the public first became aware of the accusations through the Hartford Courant and the Mexican press, which picked up the story immediately, the Vatican refused to act. Instead, Pope John Paul II put forward the beatification of Maciel’s mother and of his uncle, Bishop Guízar. (The bishop is now Saint Guízar; Maciel’s mother is still going through the beatification process.) It was only in 2006, after John Paul’s death, that a Vatican communiqué announced that Maciel had been “invited to lead a reserved life of prayer and penitence.” He lived out his final years quietly and died in the United States. The Legionaries, however, have continued to grow in numbers and in wealth.

It’s risky for a nonbeliever to try to evaluate how the Maciel narrative will affect the Church’s standing as a whole, because an outsider can understand so little of how a faith is lived among its rank and file. Some days ago, the workmen who are building a kitchen for me prepared the altar they set up every May 3 at whatever construction site they happen to be. The date commemorates the mystical occasion on which the cross on which Christ died was found three centuries later, but it also coincides with the festivities that inaugurated the rainy season in prehispanic times. The workmen lovingly carved and shellacked a small wooden cross, inscribed the year on it, dressed it in a sort of white robe, decorated the robe with blue ribbons, surrounded it with flowers in soda-pop vases, lit a candle, and stood around drinking in its company for a while.


No doubt these men know or have heard of a parish priest who had a “housekeeper” and perhaps a “niece” living with him, because these things have never been uncommon here—or elsewhere, probably, although the effort to hide them may be greater. But Paraguayans have not abandoned their cheerful president, former priest Fernando Lugo, despite the fact that he is known to have fathered at least three children (he seems to think there may be more) while he was still a bishop.

Homosexuality has also been tolerated and to some degree almost expected of skirt-wearing priests in this macho part of the world. It is possible, perhaps, that for many Catholics baptism, confession, and weekly mass are almost bureaucratic procedures, like voting or getting a driver’s license, and that true faith is something that happens at homemade altars and through the magical pathways of much older rituals, leaving priests to live their own lives as long as they do a creditable job with the sermons and the burials. The sexual abuse of children and its cover-up are a different matter entirely, one suspects.

As it turns out, Maciel’s common-law marriage to Lara Gutiérrez was not exclusive. Some ten years after he met her, he began a long-lasting relationship with a nineteen-year-old waitress from Acapulco, to whom he introduced himself as an “oil broker.” He had a daughter with her, and, according to a recent article in the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, several more children with other partners.

‘The Families of Maciel,’ on the cover of the Mexican magazine Quién, March 19, 2010

After she found out that her husband was not a CIA agent but a child- molesting priest, Lara Gutiérrez did not come forth with the news that she was married to him. Perhaps she was terrified unawares of the man she believed “was her God,” as she would say a decade later. Perhaps she was simply ashamed. At any rate, she kept silent while some of Maciel’s victims and a few journalists—notably the late Gerald Renner and Jason Berry, now of the National Catholic Reporter—kept producing more evidence. And then, last March, two years after Maciel’s death, Lara Gutiérrez appeared with her three sons on one of Mexico’s most well-regarded talk shows and listened quietly while two of her children testified that their father, Marcial Maciel, had made them masturbate him, and had first attempted to rape them, the older one said, when he was seven years old.1

We have a double vision of Maciel: we see the saintly figure known to his followers—one long, elegant hand placed on his chest, the other raised in benediction—and, as if through a keyhole, the other, nightmarish, Maciel, demanding that young boys masturbate him and then assuring the shocked, traumatized children that he was authorized by the Vatican to obtain “relief” by this means from dreadful physical pain. But we know, through Fernando González’s investigations, that Maciel was the product of terrible abuse himself. On his deathbed, a boy who grew up with Maciel at last went public with what he knew. The boy came from a poor family in the small, pious town of Cotija, and Maciel was the son of a prosperous merchant there. But he was delicate in his ways, and thus a living offense to his macho father. “One day,” González writes, Maciel’s father said, “there will be no faggots in my house: I’m going to send you six months with the muledrivers so that you’ll learn to be a man.”

Maciel was sent to join a mule train together with the boy who would, as an old man, confess what he knew. The muledrivers raped them both. “My father will think I provoked this,” the eleven-year-old Maciel told the other boy. “I’d like to hang myself.” We also know from several sources that Maciel was regularly whipped by his older siblings until he left for his uncle’s seminary at age sixteen. It is possible to read his external life as a fantastic effort to achieve the kind of glory that could compensate for the most abject humiliation.

The Legionaries—that is, Maciel—financed the construction of the church of Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Philip Martyr in Rome, which Maciel intended for his mausoleum. But strikingly, Maciel the priest nearly always staged his pederastic dramas in the infirmary, or sick room (enfermeria) of whatever Legionary seminary he happened to be at, as if this were a place where he could be cured. The masturbatory acts were explained to his victims as a remedy for his pain, but perhaps he truly hoped for healing of some sort in the infirmary. He knew, in any event, how sick he was: he left instructions with his delegates not to start the process of his canonization until thirty years after his death—in the hope, one can guess, that the memory of his sins would be erased by then.

Quite apart from the damage to Maciel’s victims, there is the pressing question of why the Catholic Church, as an institution, did not condemn him when he was ordained as a priest, or when he founded the Legionaries, or when the story of his pederasty made the covers of magazines, or when enough evidence was found for Pope Benedict XVI to conclude that Maciel should live out the rest of his life in seclusion, or even when the rumors grew strong enough to warrant a Vatican investigation of the order as a whole. The answer surprises no one: at a time in which churches are emptying, the Legionaries have been a rich source of conscripts, money, and influence. In Mexico everyone from Carlos Slim to Marta Sahagún, the wife of former president Vicente Fox, gave money to or asked favors from Maciel.

It was not until last year that Karol Wojtyła’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI, at last authorized a visitation—churchspeak for investigation—of the entire order of the Legion of Christ. As usual, the press and some disaffected religious have been way ahead of the Vatican. Now we learn from the press that the order kept some nine hundred women under nonbinding vows as consagradas, or quasi nuns, in conditions of severe emotional privation. According to a recent report in Milenio, the women, members of the Regnum Christi, live communally although they are not ordained. They are allowed to see their parents once a year, and spend two weeks with the rest of their family every seven years. They are expected to donate half their material worth after fifteen years of consecration, and donate the full amount after twenty-five. Twice a month they are obligated to have a confession-like conversation with their female superiors, who in turn report on the content of these talks to their own superiors within the Legionaries. The Vatican visitators who conducted the recent investigation of Maciel were allegedly surprised to discover the existence of the consagradas, and to find these and other violations of canonical law in their statutes.

In the end, the scandal of Marcial Maciel, gruesome and grotesque as it is, may turn out to be a scandal of the Catholic Church. There is the distressing question of the Church’s last pope, the popular John Paul II, and his relations with the demonic priest. There is the not unimportant fact that the Legionaries—along with Benedict XVI and indeed John Paul II—represent the most morally conservative part of the Church, and that they now appear enmeshed in squalid moral scandals. There is, above all, the fact that an entire large, wealthy, international institution is now under suspicion (what did Maciel’s fellow Legionaries know, when did they know it, and who was complicit?) and that the greatest institution of all, the Roman Catholic Church, appears to have engaged in a cover-up for decades on its behalf. Catholics who always identified their priests with Bing Crosby films will need some time to adjust to this knowledge.

But there is also the question of the future of the Church and of its priests and nuns as sexual beings. It is not necessarily cheap psychology to speculate that extreme sexual repression of the sort imposed by the Church on its members leads to perversion, an issue that has surfaced importunately from time to time over the centuries. Many priests and nuns, it would seem, opt to “obey” rules but not comply with them, as the Spanish formulation has it (obedezco, pero no cumplo). I offer this simply as anecdotal evidence, but in my casual, friendly, and often admiring acquaintance with members of the Catholic orders—all from the social activist branch of the Church, for whatever it’s worth—a remarkable number have been involved in some sort of couple relationship.

I once attended a major church festivity in a small town at which several of the priests and nuns who arrived to celebrate Mass were openly, and even defiantly, there with their partners, either homosexual or heterosexual. In 1979, at the time of John Paul’s first visit to Mexico, I had a conversation with a progressive Spanish priest who lived with his partner, a middle-aged woman, about his split life. Why, I asked, didn’t he leave the Church if so many of its norms violated his own convictions and desire for honesty? I remember his saying, in effect, that the possibility of doing good within an institution as enormous and influential as the Church was greater than the chances for doing good outside it. May that equation be changing?

—May 26, 2010

This Issue

June 24, 2010