Will Vatican’s Legion ‘takeover’ affect local properties?

So the Vatican is essentially taking over the Legionaries of Christ — the long controversial religious order that has fallen into disarray since a series of bizarre revelations about its famous founder.

The pope will name a “personal delegate” and a commission to run things and rethink the Legion’s mission and its place in the Catholic orbit.

Some people must be wondering today how this news will affect the Legion’s property holdings in Westchester.

I doubt that anyone knows.

The Legion owns two big, side-by-side tracts of land in Mount Pleasant and another nice piece of real estate in New Castle. I don’t have the patience right now to recount all the different Legion proposals for their Westchester property — or all the opposition from local governments and neighbors.

It will have to suffice to say that the Legion has had a rough time of it here in the Burbs, where people don’t like most big development proposals, especially those that take chunks of land off the tax rolls.

Once the Legion is remade — whatever that means, however the order will look — you have to figure that development plans will change. But we’ll see.

In case you don’t know, the Legion’s late founder, Father Marcial Maciel, who was treated as something like a living saint by his order, has been…discredited (that’s him with JPII). He molested seminarians, fathered children with several women and who knows what else.

The Vatican’s statement includes this:

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The apostolic visit has been able to ascertain that the behavior of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado has had serious consequences for the life and structure of the Legion, such as to require a process of in-depth revision.

The very serious and objectively immoral behavior of Father Maciel, as incontrovertible evidence has confirmed, sometimes resulted in actual crimes, and manifests a life devoid of scruples and of genuine religious sentiment. The great majority of Legionaries were unaware of this life, above all because of the system of relationships built by Father Maciel, who had skillfully managed to build up alibis, to gain the trust, the confidence and the silence of those around him, and to strengthen his role as a charismatic founder.

Not infrequently, the lamentable discrediting and dismissal of whoever doubted his behavior was upright, as well as the misguided conviction of those who did not want to harm the good that the Legion was doing, created around him a defense mechanism that made him untouchable for a long time, making it very difficult to know his real life.

(AP Photo/Plinio Lepri, File)

UPDATE: The Jesuit commentator Thomas Reese calls out Pope JPII for his unquestioning support of Maciel after the Legion’s founder was facing numerous accusations:

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John Paul trusted those who cheered him and tried to crush those who questioned his ideas or actions. This led him to trust Maciel and distrust questioning Jesuits.

Having grown up in a persecuted church where unity was a mater of survival, John Paul could not accept open debate and discussion in the church. Loyalty was more important than intelligence or pastoral skill. As a result, the quality of bishops appointed under him declined, as did the competence of people working in the Vatican.

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Of JPII, Reese writes: “But the sad truth is that while he was good for the world, he was bad for the church.”

Strong words.

About the whole Legionaries scandal, Reese writes:

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But the Vatican response needs to focus not only on the Legionaries but also on itself. Why did it take 13 years for the Vatican to intervene? Why did the Congregation for Religious not investigate the numerous accusations against Maciel? Why did it approve such a defective constitution in the first place? Is it true, as Jason Berry alleges in the National Catholic Reporter, that Maciel used Legionaries’ money to buy influence with cardinals in the Vatican?

If the pope wants to deal with the core issue, he should hire an outside management consulting firm to answer these questions and to make recommendations on improving the Vatican curia. The sexual abuse crisis was not only caused by bad priest, it was compounded by bad management at the diocesan and Vatican level.

Dark days in Rome

It’s becoming hard to ignore the bad headines facing the Catholic Church these days.

We’re talking internationally.

Lots of people have asked me in recent days something along the lines of “What’s going on with the Vatican?”

And I was greeted this morning with this headine from Robert Moynihan’s Inside the Vatican email: “Benedict’s Papacy in Crisis?”

You have a growing scandal in Germany, where more than 170 former Catholic school students have alleged that they were sexually abused. Others claim physical abuse.

BC EU Vatican Church AbuseSome of the accusations involve a boys’ choir that was run for 30 years by the pope’s brother, the Rev. Georg Ratzinger. He said Tuesday that he did slap students as punishment, but that he was not aware of any sexual abuse during his tenure.

“The problem of sexual abuse that has now come to light was never spoken of,” Ratzinger said.

Then you had a Vatican summit this week about past sexual abuse in Ireland, where the church has been practically brought to its knees by revelations of decades of abuse.

A Vatican statement includes this:

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For his part, the Holy Father observed that the sexual abuse of children and young people is not only a heinous crime, but also a grave sin which offends God and wounds the dignity of the human person created in his image. While realizing that the current painful situation will not be resolved quickly, he challenged the Bishops to address the problems of the past with determination and resolve, and to face the present crisis with honesty and courage.

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The fine journalist David Gibson explains how the archbishop of Dublin is trying to cope with the mess and becoming something of a hero in the process.

Then you have this bizarre story involving a papal usher and a Vatican chorister who are accused of being part of a gay prostitution ring.

By accused, we mean that the user, officially a “Gentleman of His Holiness,” was taped arranging transactions.

And then, finally, you have new stories about Fr. Marcial Maciel, the late — and now discredited – founder of the Legionaries of Christ.

The Vatican began an investigation of the order last year after it was revealed that Maciel had fathered a child and lived some sort of “double life.” Now a Mexican woman is saying that she had three sons with Maciel (who told her he was someone else) and that Maciel sexually abused two of the boys.

The Legion reacted with a statement, which includes:

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In recent years, the Legionaries of Christ have gradually come to know, with surprise and great sorrow, hidden aspects of the life of Fr Maciel. We confirm our commitment to act in truth and charity. We renew our request for forgiveness from the affected people for all of the suffering this has caused and for the ensuing scandal.

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The Legion also implied that the Mexican family’s lawyer tried to extort money from the order.

Yikes.

Now what? Based on the past, I would expect Catholic groups to start circling the wagons. Any day, we should start hearing complaints about media coverage focusing on the scandals instead of all the good work that the Catholic Church is doing in Haiti, Chile and elsewhere.

Otherwise, the Vatican is not known for reacting swiftly to crises. We’ll see.

Inside the Vatican’s Moynihan writes:

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In Rome, some fear this is just the beginning.

This fear is not idle, as the internet and world press are already full of reports that these crises may cast a shadow over the entire pontificate.

The battle occurring right now is over how history will judge Benedict’s papacy.

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(AP Photo/Diether Endlicher,File)

Religion story of the decade, anyone?

I mentioned recently that the Religion Newswriters Association had voted for the top religion stories of 2009 (featuring Obama in Cairo).

But I haven’t seen anyone weigh in on the top religion story of the decade.

Until now.

Religion scholar Mark Silk is professor of religion in public life at Trinity College in Hartford. And he’s editor of “Religion in the News,” an excellent thrice-yearly journal about media coverage of religion.

img07On his blog, SpiritualPolitics, Silk (that’s him) names what is clearly — to my mind, at least — the religion story of this unnamed decade:

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What was the biggest religion story of the decade? Unquestionably, the story of how American Catholic bishops, aided and abetted by civil authorities and mental health professionals, had systematically covered up the abuse of children by priests. This was big news locally in every Catholic diocese in the country. It became, because the USCCB was forced to confront it, a major national story. And it sparked rolling international coverage that, as this year’s revelations in Ireland attest, continues to play out. Given the breadth and depth of the coverage, I’m prepared to make the case that there has never been as big a religion story in the history of modern journalism–and that given the parlous state of journalism today, we may never see anything on its scale again.

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A simple, powerful case.

To my mind, the sex-abuse scandal was one of the most most talked-about stories of the last decade, behind only 9/11, the ongoing war on terror, and the recession.

In 2002 and 2003, people wanted to talk about it wherever I went.

To this day, it comes up in conversation all the time.

Why? Because people can’t believe that it happened, that bishops allowed it to happen.

Silk makes the case that the scandal has been largely forgotten and that the church is anxious to put the whole nasty matter behind it:

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But somehow, the entire thing has faded from national consciousness. There was not a peep about it in the NYT’s year-by-year wrap-up of the decade in the Week in Review last Sunday: Nor did Phillip Niemeyer’s Op-Chart, “Picturing the Past 10 Years,” so much as allude to the scandal. When Pope Benedict met with victims of abuse during his visit in 2007, there was appreciation yes, but also a sense that the county was so over that story. A lot more attention was paid to what the pope was wearing–Prada or no Prada? Pedophile priests? Been there, done that.

That’s certainly the vibe coming from the Catholic bishops, who recovered their mojo in the health care debate this year. With the help of a forgetful public, reminders of the late unpleasantness are brushed aside as so much finished business.

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Even Silk doesn’t mention the surest proof that the scandal has faded from public consciousness: the lack of media coverage given the demise of the Legionaries of Christ.

tjndc5-5scjixfmdmsrdd37exx_layoutIn a small nutshell: Pope John Paul II was enamored with the Legionaries, a fast-growing, very traditional Catholic order of priests that was founded in 1941 in Mexico by Marcial Maciel. The pope ignored allegations by about a dozen former seminarians that Maciel had sexually abused them.

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI publicaly retired Maciel from ministry, without saying why. But it was obvious.

This past February, the Legion itself disclosed that Maciel had fathered children and lived a “double life.” The Vatican is now investigating the order.

The whole story is set out in journalist Jason Berry’s video “Vows of Silence.”

One can argue that the tale of Maciel and the Legionaries is a microcosm of the larger sex-abuse scandal. Allegations of abuse were made and the church — in this case, the POPE — either looked the other way or ignored the evidence. What did he know? When did he know it?

I keep wondering whether the Maciel case will affect John Paul’s otherwise glowing reputation as the late pontiff zooms toward sainthood. It sure seems to be a dark stain on his pontificate. But hardly anyone knows about it.

The religion story of the decade still inspires curiosity, but no more.

Legion priests ‘trained to suspend reason,’ former member says

The highly regarded Vatican journalist Sandro Magister has a terrific interview out with Father Thomas Berg, a long-time priest of the Legionaries of Christ who recently left the troubled order to become a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

Berg is the head of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, a Catholic think tank. I had lunch with him a couple of years ago near the Legionaries’ big estate in Thornwood and was very impressed. He’s funny, personable and really smart.

He’s the highest profile Legionary to speak out about the problems facing the order, which has long been known for its secrecy and lock-step discipline.

The Legion had been known for its cultish loyality to its founder, Marcial Maciel Degollado, a favorite of Pope John Paul II. But Maciel, who had been accused of sexually abusing seminarians over many years, was sent into early retirement in 2006 by Benedict XVI. Then it came out that Maciel, who died last year, had also fathered a child.

This week, the Vatican is beginning a highly anticipated investigation into the state of the Legion.

So what does Berg have to say? How about this:

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I hope that the Legion will very quickly accelerate its disavowal of, and disassociation with, Fr. Maciel. On that point, I see no other way forward. All – and I mean all – the pictures of Maciel yet hanging in Legionary houses have to go. They have to stop referring to his writings in public (I understand that at one recent Legionary community mass the homilist still saw fit to quote from one of Maciel’s letters). A simple step in that direction, by the way, requires the immediate abrogation of their custom of referring to Fr. Maciel as “nuestro padre” or “mon père” – terms of endearment whose use he allowed and fostered. Amazingly, many if not most Legionaries still insist on using the term.

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Berg also supports some of the primary criticisms made of the Legion by so many over the years. Get this:

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More seriously, the lived manner in which Legionaries practice obedience is laced with the kind of unquestioning submission which allowed the cult of personality to emerge around the figure of Maciel in the first place and covered for his misdeeds. Legionary seminarians are essentially trained to suspend reason in their obedience and to seek a total internal conformity with all the norms, and to withstand any internal impulse to examine or critique the norms or the indications of superiors.

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Trained to suspend reason in their obedience. Yikes.

A Legion priest drops the Legion

A prominent member of the Legionaries of Christ, the embattled Catholic order, has decided to leave the Legion to become a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

Father Thomas Berg runs the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, a bioethics think-tank based here in Thornwood.

In a statement, Berg explains that the Institute will continue its work under a new board and disconnected from the Legion. He writes: “By this means and through a very active ministry in the Archdiocese of New York, under our new Archbishop Timothy Dolan, I look forward to continuing to live my total consecration to Christ in his priesthood.”

The Legion, a long controversial, solidly conservative order, has been shaken to its core by revelations that its late, beloved founder, Father Marcial Maciel, had fathered a child and apparently lived a “double life.” The Legion had previously fought allegations that Maciel sexually abused seminarians several decades ago.

The Vatican is soon sending representatives to study the Legion’s situation and help decide its future. Many observers believe that the Legion is done.

In his statement, Berg writes:

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After nearly 23 years of life as a Legionary of Christ, I have discerned that it is time for me to continue following Christ in the diocesan priesthood.  Although the recent revelations about the Legion’s founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel, were profoundly disturbing, my decision has actually been in the making for nearly three years.

Like so many, I have personally experienced again and again the vast amount of good which God has accomplished through Legionary priests and the congregation’s works of apostolate over the past six decades of its existence.  I leave with a heart grateful to Christ who I know accepted and blessed the oblation of my years of religious consecration in the Legion.

In my opinion, the serious issues within the congregation will require its thorough reformation if not a complete re-foundation. I am hopeful that the upcoming Apostolic Visitation of the Legion will be a first step toward a new beginning for the Legionaries and members of Regnum Christi. I trust that God in his providence will lead them to holiness and enable them to do great things for Christ and his Church.   For my part, I remain their friend and brother in the Lord.

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Berg is a thoughtful and forceful proponent of looking at today’s bioethical quandaries from the Catholic view of the human person.

His new essay on President Obama’s first 100 days includes this:

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Dialogue. Accommodation. Common ground. Reasonableness. Obama believes he is about all that and wants us to believe it too.

But none of us should.

Obama has mastered the art of concealing a strident pursuit of his aggressive anti-life agenda under the guise of debonair disdain for conflict and feigned confusion over all the fuss emerging from Catholic quarters.

What most strikes me about the first 100 days of the Obama phenomenon is how he has come to incarnate in the popular American psyche the fulfillment of the longed-for secular messiah. It’s the Age of Aquarius redux. Obama stands in that liberal American psyche as the great emancipator of foregone conservative foibles and moral scruples, poised to institutionalize all the dogmas of the new secular orthodoxy.  Consequently, he has unceremoniously imparted what he and his adorers believe will be a final coup de grace for many a conservative folly: reversal of the Mexico City Policy, his executive order suspending the Bush administration policy on the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, his move to rescind the “conscience clause” regulations put in place by President Bush, and the list goes on.

And given the apparent shallowness of his own religious experience, he is the icon of all religious indifferentists, of those “spiritual but not religious” souls, of the devotees of nice McNihilism.

Actions of Legion of Christ founder called ‘difficult for us to understand’

The story of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, continues to get weirder.

Over a decade ago, he was accused of molesting several former seminarians. The accusations got little official traction, as Maciel and his conservative order were favorites of Pope John Paul II.

Then in 2006, the Vatican said that Maciel would retire and live a life of “prayer and penance.”

He died in January 2008.

Now the Legion — an order with a strong presence in Westchester — is apparently acknowledging to supporters that Maciel fathered a child.

A spokesman for the order told the NYT : “We have learned some things about our founder’s life that are surprising and difficult for us to understand. We can confirm that there are some aspects of his life that were not appropriate for a Catholic priest.”

The National Catholic Reporter is saying:

Rumors that the Legionaries had reached new damning conclusions about Maciel have built in recent days in the wake of confidential meetings the new superior of the order, Fr. Álvaro Corcuera, has been holding with members to inform them of an internal probe of Maciel’s conduct.

Legionary sources told NCR that Corcuera has stressed that Maciel’s misconduct was not a “one-time slipup,” but rather “a pattern that stretched over years.”

These sources said Corcuera and other Legionary officials began their review after Maciel stepped down as the order’s superior in January 2006, and after the Vatican’s conclusions were issued four months later.

NCR also notes that Tom Hoopes, editor of the National Catholic Register, a Catholic weekly published by the Legion, wrote the following comment on the blog of the popular Catholic blogger Amy Welborn:

All I want to say is, I’m sorry.

I want to say it here, because I defended Fr. Maciel here, and I need to be on the record regarding that defense:

I’m sorry, to the victims, who were victims twice, the second time by calumny. I’m sorry, to the Church, which has been damaged. I’m sorry, to those I’ve misled.

I did it unwittingly, but this isn’t a time for excuses.

The Church gave me great, great good in Regnum Christi.

The Church did bring justice, and did penalize this man.

Thank God for the Church.

I seek repentance and forgiveness, and I leave it at that.

The Legion owns large estates in Mount Pleasant and New Castle, but has run into all sorts of development obstacles.

What now for the Legion of Christ?

Catholic analyst John Allen writes today about the fall-out from his explosive interview with Archbishop Edwin O’Brien about the Legionaries of Christ. O’Brien talked about asking the Legion to reveal all its activities in the Archdiocese of Baltimore and to stop offering spiritual counseling to minors.

Allen writes:

Since my interview with O’Brien appeared, I’ve had a high volume of responses, much of it from people who long ago made up their minds about the Legionaries. There were, however, a number of other reactions that weren’t quite so according-to-script. One prominent American Catholic commentator, for example, who has a number of friends in the Legion of Christ, called to say that he hopes the O’Brien interview will “jar loose” what he sees as a taboo within the group concerning discussion of charges of sexual abuse leveled against the late founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado.

For the record, those charges were widely publicized in the 1990s, and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith opened an investigation in 1998. In 2006, the Vatican released a communiqué stating that on the basis of that inquest, it had decided to invite Maciel “to a reserved life of prayer and penance, renouncing every public ministry.” Many observers took the decision as tantamount to a finding of guilt.

060519_maciel_hmed_530ahmedium.jpgAs I wrote a few days ago, the Legion — a fast-growing and generally conservative Catholic order of priests — has a strong presence here in the Burbs. It owns large estates in Mount Pleasant and New Castle, but the order’s development plans have run into lots of community opposition.

Allen writes extensively about how the Legion has dealt with/is dealing with the allegations against its founder (that’s him with JPII). Allen summarizes things well here:

The identity and spirituality of a religious order is deeply tied to the personality of its founder, and there aren’t many ready examples of orders which have flourished despite compelling evidence of moral corruption on the part of the founder. To acknowledge merit to the charges against Maciel, at least in the eyes of some, would therefore be tantamount to jeopardizing the viability of the communities he founded. It could also, of course, jeopardize the vocations of Legionaries intensely devoted to the figure of Maciel.

Archbishop O’Brien takes aim at Legionaries of Christ

Baltimore’s Archbishop Edwin O’Brien has taken a direct and hard shot at the Legionaries of Christ, a conservative and sometimes controversial Roman Catholic religious order.

tjndc5-5b5dj9hpmec7lvuzezi_layout.jpgO’Brien has directed the Legionaries (and its lay movement, Regnum Christi) to disclose all its activities within the Archdiocese of Baltimore and — this is serious — to end one-on-one spiritual direction with anyone under 18.

Furthermore, O’Brien (that’s him) granted an interview about the move to John Allen, the respected and influential journalist for National Catholic Reporter, guaranteeing that his remarks will be widely seen.

Asked by Allen about the Legionaries’ spiritual counseling to teens, O’Brien says:

But what goes on in the one-on-one counseling … there seems to be a tendency to say, ‘We represent God. You can tell us anything, and you better believe that what we tell you is from God too. If your parents disagree, we know better. We’re in the God business, and they’re really not.’ This is a caricature, but it’s there.

They sponsor father/son weekends. The father drives 14 hours, brings the kid up to New Hampshire and drops the kid off at 11:00 at night. Where’s the farther going to stay? Well, there’s a place about 40 miles away you can stay, so the father’s sleeping in the car overnight. Next day they’re ready for the hike, but no, the fathers don’t go, it’s just the counselors and the kids. That’s the tendency.

Who’s in charge of this? Who’s responsible? Each time you meet with an official, [they say], ‘Oh, no, that didn’t happen, did it? You should have let us know right away. That’s not right.’ But it happens over and over again.

This is serious stuff.

O’Brien, of course, is a native New Yorker and widely known figure in these parts. He only became archbishop last year after Cardinal William Keeler’s retirement.

The Legionaries — who have a strong presence in Westchester — are a fast-growing order of priests that has many supporters and many detractors. Their greatest supporter was none other than Pope John Paul II, who never missed a chance to promote them.

Then John Paul died — and Pope Benedict XVI censured Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Legion’s founder, who had been accused many years before of sex abuse by former seminarians.

Orthodox Catholics often point to the Legion’s success drawing vocations as proof that Orthodoxy connects with young men. But others question the Legion’s methods. In 2004, Archbishop Harry Flynn of the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese shut down the Legion’s operations.

Now O’Brien is really piling on. He criticizes the Legion as an outside critic might, in terms not generally heard from an archbishop:

I’ve always suspected the flaws in the organization are endemic to it. There’s no remedying them, because it’s so deeply ingrained. There’s a sense of secrecy right from the seminary. The seminarians move two-by-two wherever they go. If one criticizes anything about the institution, the other one has to report it. … All this flows into Regnum Christi as well. Nothing happens in Regnum Christi without the Legionaries.

And then there is this exchange between Allen and O’Brien about the allegations agains the order’s founder:

Do you believe that any reform in the Legionaries has to involve coming to terms with the charges against Fr. Maciel?

It’s got to be faced. They really have to face it. First of all, they have to come to grips with it themselves, within their own community of Legionaries. They have to squarely face it. They need to be able to say, ‘The evidence seems to be that this man engaged in some activities that were less than honorable, and maybe even sinful.’ Of course, I don’t know what the evidence is, but …

One presumes that the CDF would not have reached the judgment it did without compelling evidence.

Absolutely. Without facing that, I think it casts a pall over any other objectivity, any other integrity, they claim to put forth as their qualifications to deal with lay people and with the Catholic church in general.

The Legion owns large estates in Mount Pleasant and New Castle, but has long been at odds with both towns over development plans. The Legion has plans to build a liberal arts college on part of its Mount Pleasant land.