My two days with the New Square arson victim, a Muslim doctor and Maryknoll missionaries

For a guy who no longer covers religion, I’ve spent a lot of time the past few days with people of faith.

Yesterday, I got to speak with Aron Rottenberg, the famous arson victim from the Hasidic village of New Square. Last night, I sat in on a discussion of Adam and Eve, led by Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan, an important Muslim figure I am profiling as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 nears. And this morning, I visited with several officials at Maryknoll for an upcoming story about the Catholic missionary society’s 100th birthday.

It’s been like the old days. What interesting people. What great stories they tell.

Rottenberg, who got out of the hospital Monday, met with local media yesterday at a hotel where he is staying before he attempts to return to New Square. As I wrote for today’s Journal News/LoHud, he talked about all sorts of things — the attack, the blame he places on New Square’s leaders, his father’s “open-minded” ways, and the brainwashing that he says goes on in New Square as a way of life.

I was anxious for some time to ask Rottenberg about growing up in New Square and what the people are taught to believe about the grand rebbe.

He said that the people are taught to believe that the GR is “pure spirituality.”

He said he wants his children to leave New Square. His oldest child, married and a new mother, has already left with her family for Monsey. “Most people in New Square are good people, but I don’t want them there,” he said.

Rottenberg kept saying that people should “enjoy religion” and not give up their basic freedoms, like choosing where to pray. Interestingly, he said that the reason he started praying at a nearby nursing home instead of New Square’s synagogue — the move that sparked all his troubles — was that he was asked to help form a minyan, a 10-man prayer quorum, so that an elderly resident could pray.

What a rebel.

I’ll write more in the days ahead about my upcoming profile of Dr. Hassan, the best-known face of Islam around here, and Maryknoll’s centennial.

I spoke with one missionary, Father Vince Cole from Detroit, who has spent the last 40 years serving in a village in Indonesia. He’s in Ossining to celebrate his Maryknoll anniversary, but is looking foward to getting back home.

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.