In a somewhat surprising move, Pope Benedict has ordered an apostolic visitation of the controversal religious order, the Legionnaires of Christ whose controversial if not charismatic figure Marcial Maciel fathered at least one child and is said to have sexually abused seminarians under his tutelage.
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The controversial order was one of Pope John Paul II’s favorite religious orders. John Paul admired Maciel for his fundraising prowess, doctrinal orthodoxy, and loyalty to the papacy. His admiration blinded him from the other, dark side of Maciel-the one that was sexually deviant, secretive, and authoritarian to the point of seeking to control every aspect of its members’ lives.
The apostolic visitation is a church investigation conducted under the authority of the Pope himself. It is not something that occurs every day in the church. An apostolic visitation usually occurs when there is potential for grave scandal in the church or there has been a serious problem that can no longer be ignored. In the 1980’s, Pope John Paul II ordered an apostolic visitation of US seminaries to discover if they were hotbeds for doctrinal heterodoxy and homosexuality. This particular investigation will no doubt include a discussion concerning the future of the Legionnaires of Christ as well as their lay counterpart Regnum Christi.
After John Paul’s death in 2005, Benedict moved swiftly (for the church, that is) to remove Maciel from any public priestly duties. While he stopped short of having him removed from the priesthood (laicized), he did strip him of much of his influence and power base. After his death in 2008, revelations that he fathered a child could no longer be denied by the religious order. The news sent shockwaves through the church, especially the Legionnaires of Christ and members of Regnum Christi.
Besides the sexual abuse allegations, there are financial irregularities the members of the apostolic visitation team will investigate. Their findings may lead the Pope to dissolve the religious order.
The Legionnaires of Christ was founded by the Rev. Marcial Maciel in 1941 as an order of Catholic priests. The Order boasts over 700 priests and 1,300 young men studying for the priesthood. The order’s priests work in 20 different countries throughout the world. The order priests take the usual three vows of other religious orders namely, poverty, chastity, and obedience. However, they also took private vows of charity and humility which were subsequently revoked by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007.
The Legion’s political leanings have been criticized as ultra-conservative and its members, particularly its founder Maciel, have associated themselves with the powerful and wealthy, especially in Latin America.
In the United States, the order’s most consistent and vocal critic has been Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore who had petitioned Rome for their removal from the Archdiocese. The archbishop discontinued these efforts after several powerful Roman curial officials asked him to do so. O’Brien’s criticism centered on the Legion’s lack of transparency and their aggressive recruiting practices which have been rumored to have included children. These children were supposedly instructed not to tell their own parents about the Legion’s recruitment efforts.
The recent decision to have the order investigated by Rome comes at a particularly difficult time for the Legion. The embarrassing revelations of their leader’s sexual abuse of young seminarians as well as his fathering children with at least one woman have caused many in the Catholic Church to call for their dissolution. The extent to which the apostolic visitation is successful depends upon the willingness of the Legion’s hierarchy to cooperate with the investigators. This is especially true regarding the Legion’s documents chronicling its financial dealings as well as the sexual abuse allegations. In the end, it will be the Pope himself who decides the fate of the Legion. If you or a loved one have any questions about sexual abuse or clergy abuse please feel free to contact Joe Saunders today.