Thursday, January 31, 2008

Maciel Dead

Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado, the controversial founder of the Legionaries of Christ who was forced from ministry by the Vatican under a cloud of sex-abuse allegations, died yesterday aged 87.

In a statement released earlier today, the Legion announced the "departure of its dear Father Founder... to the heavenly homeland." In a letter to the communities of the Legionaries and its lay arm, Regnum Christi, Maciel's successor Fr Álvaro Corcuera said that he died at an unspecified location in the United States "with the peace that always filled his soul." (Wire reports subsequently indicated the place of death as a "group home" in Houston.)

The community's formal notice said that Maciel passed away "in the bosom of the Catholic church."

A favorite of the late Pope John Paul II, the Mexican-born cleric -- known to his faithful as "Padre Nuestro" -- founded the Legion in 1941, three years before his priestly ordination. In time, particularly under the backdoor patronage of the Polish pontiff, the community known for its strict organization and staunch conservatism spread to 40 countries, its membership growing to over 750 priests, 2,500 seminarians and 70,000 laity in Regnum Christi.

Having approved the latter's governing statutes in the months before his 2005 death, the late Pope also gave the Legion its first high-profile bishop -- Brian Farrell, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The Irish-born curialist had previously served in the influential post of English-language desk chief in the Vatican Secretariat of State. (Farrell's brother Kevin, currently bishop of Dallas, was likewise ordained for the community, but left it in the 1980s to incardinate into the archdiocese of Washington.) Two other Legion priests had been named bishops in Mexico, the first in 1974.

Shortly before John Paul's death, the then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger pushed forward with a long-shelved investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct by Maciel -- an inquiry which, reportedly, found resistance in the papal apartment.

While the abuse reported by several former Legionaries could have resulted in the founder's forced dismissal from the clerical state, the Holy See -- now with Ratzinger as Pope -- triangulated its response. Issuing its decision in May 2006, the arrangement allowed the once-omnipresent Maciel to remain a priest, albeit "invited" to "a reserved life of prayer and penance, renouncing all public ministry." 

The move might've spared him from a canonical trial in light of his age and health. Nonetheless, it remained a high-profile rebuke without precedent.

Interpreted as a strong signal that Benedict XVI would "clean house" following global revelations of abuse and cover-up, the judgment made international news as Maciel -- who emphatically denied the allegations -- became the most prominent cleric ousted on sex charges.

While at the time, the Vatican was also careful to note that "irrespective of the person of the founder," the community's "distinguished" service was "acknowledged with gratitude," recent reports in foreign media indicate that Benedict has since nullified two private vows taken by Legionaries to maintain secrecy in the order and to refrain from criticism of a superior.

In 2005, at age 84, Maciel stood down from the LC's leadership.

Ostensibly due to the fallout of the CDF inquest, the Legion said today that, in accordance with Maciel's wishes, his funeral would take place "within a climate of prayer, in a quiet and private manner."