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Can the Pope Save the Legion of Christ?

That was the implicit question set forth at the end of our New Oxford Note “The Self-Destruction of a Cult of Personality” (Apr.). We shall soon find out the answer.

Pope Benedict XVI has ordered an investigation of the Legion of Christ, whose founder, the late Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, fathered a child some twenty years ago and faced a slew of allegations of sexual abuse of seminarians. The investigation was announced by the Pope’s secretary of state, Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, in a March 10 letter to Fr. Alvaro Corcuera, general director of the Legion. The investigation will take the form of an apostolic visitation by a “team of prelates” who have yet to be named. The Holy Father, wrote Cardinal Bertone to the Legion, “is aware of the noble ideals that inspire you and the fortitude and prayerful spirit with which you are facing the current vicissitudes, and he encourages you to continue seeking the good of the Church and society by means of your own distinctive initiatives and institutions.” Cardinal Bertone assured the Legion that it “can always count on the help of the Holy See, so that with truth and transparency, in a climate of fraternal and constructive dialog, you will overcome the present difficulties.” Cardinal Bertone’s “truth and transparency” clause is key: The Legion has long been known to operate in a shroud of strict secrecy, a charge leveled even by an American archbishop, and has been accused of obfuscating the truth about its methods and finances, and the life of its late leader.

Unlike the apostolic visitation of women’s religious orders in the U.S. (for more on which see our New Oxford Note “Song of the Boo-Birds,” May), which is being supervised by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAB| the visitation of the Legion is being overseen by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). The reasons are twofold: The CDF carried out the original investigation into the accusations against Fr. Maciel — which ended with his being sent out to pasture in 2006 to do “prayer and penance” for the brief remainder of his life — and is therefore in a better position to organize the logistics of the visitation. More significantly perhaps, the CDF is handling this assignment to “avoid perceptions of bias,” according to John L. Allen Jr. (National Catholic Reporter, Apr. 17). Franc Cardinal Rodé, prefect of the CICLSAL, has in the past been a public supporter of the Legion, and employs at least one Legionary priest on his staff. There are currently no Legionaries serving in the CDF.

Reaction to the investigation among Legionary priests has been characterized as one of relief. “Collectively, we’re thrilled this is happening,” an unidentified Legionary priest told Allen. “Our view is, the sooner the better.” Allen reports that “some Legionaries have come to see an independent Vatican investigation as the lone ‘exit strategy’ from their recent woes, potentially allowing the order to move forward despite being forced to admit serious misconduct by its founder, and despite a long history of denying that misconduct.” Fr. Corcuera, in a statement, thanked the Holy Father “from my heart for offering us this additional help to face our present vicissitudes related to the grave facts of our founder’s life,” and said that the Legion will “fully and gratefully participate” in the visitation: “We are ready to welcome the visitators to our centers and institutions with faith and supernatural spirit, cooperating with them and facilitating their mission.”

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