Legions of scandals behind the scandal?

At least 10 years ago, a conservative Catholic friend of mine told me something that totally changed how I viewed this whole era of clergy sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. Never forget, said this former seminarian, that this is not an issue of right vs. left or left vs. right.

Clergy sexual abuse is taking place across the theological spectrum. Yes, there was a spike in abuse of children, but especially teen-aged boys, soon after Vatican II and that may have had something to do with the fact that many priests left to get married, contributing to the creation of what insiders have called a gay subculture in seminaries. And, yes, the whole liberated atmosphere of the '60s and '70s may have played a role.

But those realities hid the larger truth, he said. There were conservative Catholics with dark secrets to hide and they were especially open to blackmail threats. There was also an incentive to enthusiastically preach conservatism, in an era of conservative leaders, while living a secret life that contradicted one's sermons.

Meanwhile, Catholic liberals might have motives to justify public attacks on the church's doctrines about sex, but they were not alone in struggling with private sins, he stressed. The scandal transcended left and right.

I thought about that when regular GetReligion reader Julia posted a link to part I of a National Catholic Reporter investigation into the fall of Father Marcial Maciel of Mexico, the founder of the Legion of Christ. This order grew with great gusto, in an era when the number of priests in other orders declined sharply. It gained power and wealth.

Thus, Julia wrote that, while others focus on scandals in Germany and Wisconsin:

The National Catholic Reporter is breaking the big story. Bits of it have been dribbling out for years in the Catholic press and blogs. The expose goes far in explaining why there are folks in the Vatican Curia wanting to take down Benedict. Part II will follow. It's a very sordid story and Benedict is not the villain.

It is impossible to summarize this giant piece, even the first installment. But it is crucial that Maciel used his clout to find supporters in very high places, including the papal apartment of Msgr. Stanislaw Dziwisz, the Polish secretary of John Paul. Ultimately, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI had seen enough and personally authorized an investigation into Maciel.

How did Maciel use his influence? NCR writes:

The Vatican office with the greatest potential to derail Maciel's career before 2001 -- the year that Ratzinger persuaded John Paul to consolidate authority of abuse investigations in his office -- was the Congregation for Religious, which oversaw religious orders such as the Dominicans, Franciscans and Legionaries, among many others. According to two former Legionaries who spent years in Rome, Maciel paid for the renovation of the residence in Rome for the Argentine cardinal who was prefect of religious from 1976 to 1983, the late Eduardo Francisco Pironio. "That's a pretty big resource," explains one priest, who said the Legion's work on the residence was expensive, and widely known at upper levels of the order. "Pironio got his arm twisted to sign the Legion constitution."

The Legion constitution included the highly controversial Private Vows, by which each Legionary swore never to speak ill of Maciel, or the superiors, and to report to them anyone who uttered criticism. The vows basically rewarded spying as an expression of faith, and cemented the Legionaries' lockstep obedience to the founder. The vows were Maciel's way of deflecting scrutiny as a pedophile. But cardinals on the consultors' board at Congregation for Religious balked on granting approval.

"Therefore, Maciel went to the pope through Msgr. Dziwisz," said the priest. "Two weeks later Pironio signed it."

I bring this up for a simple reason. While your GetReligionistas have been writing waves of posts about the New York Times and others making accusations about Pope Benedict XVI, I have been meaning to dig down a later or two in my infamous Folder Of Guilt and write about a recent Los Angeles Times report about the ongoing fallout in Mexico after years of revelations about Maciel.

The top of that story is, well, hellish and, while it connects few dots, it does provide a vivid map of the one corner of the current battlefield:

He hobnobbed with Mexico's rich and famous, cut lucrative real estate deals and was rumored to travel on occasion with a briefcase full of cash. He fathered at least one child, molested seminarians and boys and is said to have boasted that he had the pope's permission to get massages from young nuns. And all the while the conservative priest was building one of the most influential organizations in the Roman Catholic Church.

Two years after the death of the Rev. Marcial Maciel, a Mexico native, scandals continue to unfold: Just the other day in Mexico City, two brothers came forward, claiming tearfully that not only was Maciel their father, he had also sexually abused them.

Buffeted by the string of revelations, Maciel's powerful Legion of Christ is fighting for its survival in Rome, the headquarters of the church. But here in Mexico, where the Legion has long-standing ties with the ruling class and an expansive network of elite schools, the organization remains strong. Rather than the desertions that some branches of the Legion have experienced in the United States and elsewhere, student enrollment in Legionary schools in Mexico grew by 6% to 8% last year, spokesman Javier Bravo said.

The order's assets are estimated by some to be worth $20 billion. ... Today the Legionaries, as they are known, operate in nearly 40 countries with 800 priests, 2,600 seminarians and a lay branch called Regnum Christi ("Christ's Kingdom") that has more than 75,000 members.

After years of accusations, the Legionaries finally issued a recent apology for Maciel's "reprehensible" behavior that said, in part: "Though it causes us consternation, we have to say that these acts did take place."

What protected Maciel? The Times team stressed that his order was growing during a "time of declining memberships and severe shortages in the clergy -- and because it espoused the conservative brand of Catholicism that recent popes have favored." Conservatives would say that the order was growing BECAUSE of that conservative theology and, thus, represents a betrayal of the doctrinal heart of the church.

This only makes the scandal harder for Catholic leaders to handle, not easier. Suffice it to say that Maciel is no longer considered to be on the highway to sainthood.

It's true that parts of the Times piece will drive conservative Catholic readers crazy. The Jesuits are the good guys, for example, while the Legionnaires are the bad guys in an epic post-Vatican II battle between rich and poor in Mexico. I think that picture was a bit more complex, at street level.

Still, it's important that the Los Angeles Times recently covered part of that story -- in the mainstream. I didn't want to let that pass without being mentioned.

Now we can all brace ourselves for the NCR investigation, part II.

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