The World

The Church’s Enduring Legacy of Abuse

Marcial Maciel’s crimes should have ended his organization.

Marical Maciel holds the hand of Pope John Paul II.
Pope John Paul II blesses Marcial Maciel in Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican on Nov. 30, 2004. Reuters/Tony Gentile

In Fernando Meirelles’ film The Two Popes, former Pope Benedict XVI, played by Anthony Hopkins, confesses his sins to Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis. It is a crucial scene, in which Benedict aims to convince Bergoglio, played by Jonathan Pryce, of the reasons for his resignation as head of the church.

As Bergoglio listens, Benedict mentions Mexican priest Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, an influential, ultraconservative organization present in more than 20 countries, where it operates more than a dozen colleges and almost 150 schools while maintaining close ties to the upper echelons of political power. Maciel, an infamous pedophile who victimized dozens of children in over six decades in the priesthood, enjoyed the active protection of the church for years, especially during John Paul II’s papacy, in which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—later Benedict XVI—was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s authority on policy and discipline. Although Meirelles precludes the audience from listening to Benedict’s full confession on Maciel, the inference is clear: Benedict’s inaction on Maciel and others like him burden him to the point of spiritual exhaustion.

It is impossible to know if the real 92-year-old pope emeritus, who was back in the news this week after demanding his name be removed as co-author from a controversial book defending celibacy, is really so profoundly troubled by the church’s unforgivable passivity during Maciel’s long reign of terror. But while Benedict’s conscience remains inscrutable, the full extent of Maciel’s crimes and the Vatican’s role in his impunity does not. Brazilian Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, head of the church’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which oversees organizations and orders like Maciel’s Legionaries, recently admitted that the Vatican had evidence of Maciel’s crimes dating back to 1943. “We’ve been covering this for over 70 years, and it has been a tremendous mistake,” Braz de Aviz said.

The last four decades of Maciel’s life—during which he consolidated enormous influence, especially in his native Mexico—were particularly shocking. Despite mounting evidence, John Paul II turned a blind eye on his history of abuse, emboldening his followers. (Some even advocated for Maciel’s canonization.) For years, Joseph Ratzinger also refused to act against Maciel. As the prefect responsible for enforcing church doctrine, he chose to handle the church’s sexual abuse scandals through secrecy rather than transparency. For almost a quarter century, Ratzinger failed to push for the detachment of Marcial Maciel from the position of privilege he enjoyed for so long. He finally did so in 2006, when, as pope, he found the courage to remove Maciel from the priesthood and send him to Mexico to supposedly focus on a “discreet life of penance and prayer.” If Maciel followed Benedict’s spiritual marching orders, it certainly did not lead to atonement. He never admitted any wrongdoing, much less showed remorse. He died in 2008 without ever asking for forgiveness.

Under the Vatican’s tutelage, Maciel’s organization has tried to purge itself of its founder. In 2009, the order began a revision of its practices that five years later led to a new “constitutional text,” approved by the Vatican, to “preserve the charism of the congregation and help it thrive.” Maciel’s closest associates continually declared themselves aghast over the accusations and never admitted being privy to any wrongdoing. The organization is no longer allowed to refer to Maciel as “our father” or promote his works. The process of getting rid of Maciel’s legacy of abuse has been a whole different matter. This week, the organization announced Fernando Martínez would leave the priesthood after facing accusations of abuse from at least eight girls in schools run by the organization in Mexico during the early 1990s. The Legionaries stopped short of expelling Martínez, though.

One possible explanation? Martínez himself was one of Maciel’s many victims of abuse when they crossed paths in a seminary in Ontaneda, Spain, as well as in Rome. The year was 1954. Martínez was 15.

This should come as no surprise. Recent reports have shown that the cycle of abuse within the Legionaries of Christ spanned generations of priests closely tied to both Maciel and the Legion’s origins. According to Spanish newspaper El País, child molestation within the order “was not the result of the perversion of a few priests, but part of a foundational dynamic” within the whole organization. Like Martínez, a considerable number of Maciel’s victims grew up to be abusers themselves, their impunity guaranteed in exchange for their silence about their original ordeal.

Many were rewarded with positions of power and influence. (It is no coincidence that Martínez was given an important role in two of the organization’s academic institutions in Mexico). “It’s part of the Legion’s methods,” Erick Escobar, an ex-member recently said. “Prepare you for the abuse, abuse you, and then turn you into an accomplice.” A recent study published by the order itself admits as much. According to the Legionaries own findings, more than 60 percent of those abused—111 children, by the organization’s own probably count—were either violated by Maciel himself, one of his victims or by a third generation of victims. “These were chains of abuse,” the report acknowledges.

After Maciel, the Legion has tried to get back to business, focusing not on the sins of the founder but on the group’s supposed atonement. So far, the strategy seems to be working, at least up to a point: In the decade since Maciel’s death, active membership has grown 3 percent. According to some estimates, over 170,000 students attend the organization’s schools.

As for the Vatican, Pope Francis seems resolute to leave Maciel in the past. Five years ago, in an interview, the legion’s new leader, Mexican priest Eduardo Robles Gil, told El País that Francis had given his blessing for the organization to renew its efforts. “Pope Francis told me ‘go forward, you have my support,’ ” Robles Gil said. But, as cases like Martinez’s prove, it is hard to turn the page on Marcial Maciel when he was the whole book. Maciel’s organization, tainted by heinous crimes that spanned generations, should have been laid to rest along with its founder.