Why Orthodox Catholics Are Angry With the Legion of Christ

May 2005By Michael S. Rose

Michael S. Rose is author of several books including the New York Times bestseller Goodbye, Good Men. He is Web Editor of the NOR.

Vows of Silence.  By Jason Berry and Gerald Renner. Free Press. 356 pages.. $26..



Vows of Silence should be one of the most important books in better than a decade for conservative Catholics in the U.S. and beyond. Alas, it will not be. Jason Berry and Gerald Renner, conscientious and seasoned journalists, undermine their own effort with their openly stated liberal Catholic agenda. Moreover, the subtitle of the book, "The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II" gives a pretty good indication of the authors’ bias. But John Paul is given scant attention. This is not even a book about the papacy or Vatican politics. The book is about Fr. Thomas Doyle, who for two decades has heroically stood up for the victims of priestly sex abuse, and about Fr. Marcial Maciel, who has been accused numerous times of sex abuse, and about his Legion of Christ and its lay affiliate Regnum Christi. The connection of John Paul to the Legion is just this: The Pope has put his weight behind the Legion in the past, which the Legion is quick to point out, repeatedly.

The Legion and its supporters have exploited the authors’ bias in order to dismiss their thorough research. The people who ought to read Vows of Silence, mainly conservative Catholics who would likely be attracted to the manifest signs of Legion orthodoxy, are given a good reason not to take Berry and Renner’s research seriously. Nonetheless, despite their liberal proclivities, the facts they assemble are very much worth examining.

When some of the book’s material regarding sexual abuse allegations against Fr. Maciel were first published in the Hartford Courant, neoconservative, high-tax-bracket Catholics were quick to defend Maciel. With little or no first-hand knowledge of the situations being written about, prominent Catholics such as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus of First Things, William Donohue of The Catholic League, Harvard professor Mary Ann Glendon, and Deal Hudson of Crisis magazine all denounced the Courant’s series. Yet none of these defenders met with Maciel’s accusers. The Legion and the neocons, both reputed to be interested in money and power, are allies. It’s “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” But these neocons may come to regret their hasty judgments.

Vows of Silence deals with well-substantiated sexual abuse allegations from nine former Legionaries against Fr. Maciel, including — significantly — men who were high-ranking members of the order before bailing out. Over the past five or so years, the Legion has been denying the allegations, categorizing them as a conspiracy, and publicly assassinating the character of these men without substantial proof — every one a well-respected professional, none of whom is seeking financial compensation.

One of the Legion’s greatest skills seems to be character assassination without substantial evidence. When former Legionary Juan Vaca came forward with sex abuse allegations against Fr. Maciel, the Publisher and Editor in Chief of the Legion-owned National Catholic Register, Fr. Owen Kearns, derided Vaca as “a proud, status-conscious man angered and disappointed at his professional failures,” a man who wanted “greater power in the Legion.” Juan Vaca was Director of the Legionaries in the U.S. when he resigned from the Legion. I have spoken with people who personally know Vaca. They say that Fr. Kearn’s characterization of him couldn’t be further from the truth. Berry and Renner paint the same picture: a mild-mannered, humble man.

The defense of Maciel by the Legion is essential because both Regnum Christi and the Legionaries of Christ are built around a cult of personality, that of Fr. Marcial Maciel. He is called Nuestro Padre (Our Father) and is regarded as a “living saint.” From several accounts, Maciel appears to be a megalomaniac with a penchant for making theatrical appearances with spectacular arrivals, such as flying in on a personal helicopter into a crowd of squealing teens, perhaps in imitation of a rock star.

It is instructive to note here, as an aside, that during the past few years Maciel has canceled his spectacular appearances at the annual family day festivals in the U.S. In 2003 Maciel was scheduled to address the thousands gathered in Chicago. When he failed to arrive and event organizers played a video-taped address from the Legion founder, a reporter speculated in the Chicago Tribune that Fr. Maciel had failed to appear in Chicago because he feared American abuse-victims groups would protest his presence. The Tribune also pointed out that if Maciel were a priest operating in a U.S. diocese, the nine credible allegations of sex abuse would have caused him to be relieved of his priestly duties.

When I spoke to Jay Dunlap, the Legionaries’ Communications Director, the following week about another topic, I asked him if there was any truth to the Tribune’s report. “No,” responded Dunlap. He dismissed the entire article as the immature work of a summer intern from Stanford University. I was expected to believe that this journalist from Stanford was all wet.

Why then did Fr. Maciel fail to appear in Chicago as scheduled? It’s a long story, explained Dunlap. The official Legion PR line was this: Maciel had been on some important pastoral visit to South America. From there, he was scheduled to fly to Chicago. However, said Dunlap, Maciel was diverted by a sudden request from some unnamed cardinal to return to Rome on some urgent business. “When a Vatican cardinal makes a request,” said Dunlap, “Fr. Maciel can’t exactly ignore it.”

Thus, according to the official party line, Fr. Maciel did not appear in Chicago because he was called to Rome by a Vatican cardinal. This explanation would only sound plausible to someone who knows little to nothing about Church hierarchy. Heads of religious orders do not report to or take quotidian orders from “Vatican cardinals.” What urgent business?, I asked Dunlap. Dunno, he said.

Is the public really expected to believe that Maciel’s “urgent business” in Rome couldn’t wait one day — until after he addressed one of the largest gatherings of his lay movement? Given that Berry and Renner report that Maciel has thrown lavish dinners in Rome for prominent Vatican cardinals, perhaps a better explanation would be that Maciel has to come running, Johnny-on-the-spot, to any and all “Vatican cardinals” so as to help guarantee that the cardinals in the Curia will protect him from the sexual allegations swilling about him. Don’t be so naïve as to think that cardinals don’t do that — remember Cardinal Law (now a Vatican cardinal)?

What about Maciel’s scheduled appearance at the Family Gathering in 2002 in Baltimore; why did Maciel also cancel his appearance there? Dunlap was ready with his response: “You’ll remember that was the week before the Pope was scheduled to visit Mexico City.”

Yes, I told him, I remember.

“Well, Fr. Maciel was called to Mexico City to help the city prepare for the Pope’s arrival.”

This explanation was even more far-fetched than the Chicago excuse. Was I supposed to believe that Fr. Maciel “was called” to Mexico in order to hang tinsel a whole week before the Pope’s arrival? And who called him to Mexico City?

The primary reason I called Dunlap in the first place was that Sophia Institute Press (which published two of my books: Ugly As Sin and Priest) had recently published Christ Is My Life by Fr. Maciel, a 304-page book that purported to be a candid interview with Jesús Colina, a Catholic journalist with the Rome-based Zenit News Agency, owned by the Legionaries. The book was being criticized as a propaganda tract used for recruiting new prospects into the movement. The fact that the Legion purchased 16,000 copies of the book just prior to the Chicago festival lends some credence to that claim.

I was asked to review the book for a national newspaper — not the NOR. After reading Christ Is My Life — filled mainly with pious platitudes with little spiritual or theological depth — I discovered that former Legion seminarians and priests were denouncing the book, which was ostensibly autobiographical, as a string of fabrications — a concocted self-hagiography. Given the fact that the “interviewer” was a Regnum Christi member and Legion employee rather than an independent journalist, and that so many former Legion members disputed the historical facts, I felt like I had little to offer by way of a review. Moreover, I was not encouraged by the fact that the Legion’s website was promoting the book as “the fastest-selling Catholic book on the market today.” That the Legion of Christ itself bought up 16,000 books upon publication for free distribution was what made Christ Is My Life a so-called bestseller — a marketing technique that smacks of duplicity.

A booklet on the life and times of Fr. Maciel written by Fr. J. Alberto Villasana, a Legion priest, paints Nuestro Padre as a veritable hero of the Cristero Revolt in Mexico. As a teenager, for example, he is said to have calmed the crowds in a near-riot, to have tended to wounded Cristeros, to have led anti-government protests, and to have miraculously escaped the bullets of a Communist assassin, all the while as a pious seminarian he chose to sleep on newspapers instead of a mattress and use a towel instead of a blanket. (For at least the past decade he’s been chauffeured around in a Mercedes, has paid $9,000 a ticket to fly the supersonic Concorde across the Atlantic, and rents helicopters to keep certain of his appointments in Mexico, Colombia, and the U.S.). Those who knew him at the time, however, including Fr. Rogelio Orozco (one of the original group of boys to form the Legion in 1941) paint a portrait of a self-absorbed, spoiled, and sissified man, who was kicked out of seminary after seminary, and who literally made his teachers “recoil.” Berry and Renner write that Maciel has crafted his own persona: “a heroic, saintly mask to cover his worldly genius at pulling money from the rich while hiding sex with boys in the closet….” The Legion counters by claiming that expulsion after expulsion — at one seminary he was given only half an hour to vacate — was caused by “misunderstandings.”

Berry and Renner are in top form when debunking the string of alleged fabrications put forth in Maciel’s autobiography. They have done their homework, digging into the source material and often finding dead ends: sources that don’t exist, sources that turn out to be nothing more than verbal recountings of incidents from the mouth of Nuestro Padre to some Legion priest-chronicler. Sometimes the authors are even able to identify fault lines in Maciel’s self-hagiography, especially when exact dates are given. For example, Fr. Maciel claimed that in June of 1946 he circumnavigated curial gatekeepers to gain access to Pope Pius XII. According to one of his hagiographic booklets, Nuestro Padre waited while the Holy Father “celebrated a solemn Mass of beatification” and when the ceremony was finished he got into the greeting line and allegedly said: “Holy Father, I am a Mexican priest and I have something important to tell you, but I don’t have anyone to recommend me to you.” First, Maciel had two uncles who were bishops. Second, Berry and Renner discovered that Pius XII never beatified anyone in June of 1946.

Maciel’s exaggerations apparently weren’t limited to his autobiography. According to Federico Dominguez (not one of the accusers), a former Legionary and the secretary to whom Nuestro Padre dictated his letters for years, Fr. Maciel also liked to “exaggerate” in his correspondence with his rich patrons in Mexico: “He would say we had three hundred students but there were only one hundred…. I began to have my doubts about him.”

But exaggeration, invention, and lying weren’t Fr. Maciel’s only problems, attested Dominguez. One evening he went to Fr. Maciel’s bedroom and found him there already in bed — in the dark with an adolescent boy, Juan Vaca.

Chapter after chapter of Vows of Silence is filled with horror stories from former Legion priests, seminarians, and Regnum Christi members. The pages are crammed with charges of brainwashing, manipulation, pederast seduction rituals, character assassination, bribes, drug abuse, gulag-type threats — you name it. The most interesting aspect of this exposé is that even though the authors are avowedly liberal, a good number of the sources quoted are those who are self-defined orthodox Catholics. After all, the Legion consciously cultivates conservative Catholics, using a façade of pious traditionalism to draw them in. It should come as no surprise then that the harshest critics of the Legion are not liberal Catholics, but those who are staunchly conservative in their views of the Church. They are typically family-oriented, faithful Catholics who look to the Holy Father for direction, and embrace the teachings of the Catholic Church without reserve, and often attend Mass daily. Something is making these people very, very angry, and it’s not the Legion’s alleged fidelity to the Pope. Rather, it is the Legion’s manipulative techniques used to lure them and their money into the movement. In short, their problem is with the Legion’s use of “orthodoxy” to manipulate faithful Catholics in order to build an empire, a “parallel church” (as one bishop expressed it).

According to the well-documented and well-researched material presented in Vows of Silence — and my own research over the past five years on Maciel and his order that confirms the facts in the book — the Legion has broken up families, destroyed schools, and pulled the wool over the eyes of many orthodox Catholics. That’s part of the reason the order and its lay affiliate have been banned from certain dioceses, and are unwelcome on many Catholic campuses, including some notable conservative Catholic campuses (though only in an unwritten and informal way, I am told, so they won’t risk losing any big donors).

One of the main problems is that there’s been a rigorously observed media blackout among neoconservative Catholic publications on the serious problems posed by the Legion of Christ, Regnum Christi, and Nuestro Padre. This is perhaps a story in itself.

The Legion’s tentacles are far-reaching, as many staunchly conservative Catholics who have been burned by the Legion or Regnum Christi are afraid to speak out, for fear of retribution.

But thankfully, many talked on the record with Jason Berry and Gerald Renner. My advice is: Read the book and then make up your own mind.

DOSSIER: Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi



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