COMMENTARY: New Book Blames Pope for Sex Abuse Scandal

c. 2004 Religion News Service (Eugene Cullen Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic Church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author of “Cardinal Bernardin’s Stations of the Cross,” published by St. Martin’s Press.) (UNDATED) In the just published “Vows of Silence” (The Free Press), two of America’s most […]

c. 2004 Religion News Service

(Eugene Cullen Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic Church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author of “Cardinal Bernardin’s Stations of the Cross,” published by St. Martin’s Press.)

(UNDATED) In the just published “Vows of Silence” (The Free Press), two of America’s most respected religion writers document the life and career of the Rev. Marcial Maciel, founder of the controversial Legion of Christ. Maciel has been protected by Pope John Paul II himself from any investigation of the many accusations of sexual abuse that have been made against Maciel by seminarians and priests of his own religious order.

A hale and hearty Maciel survives, well protected, in Rome, according to Jason Berry, the investigative journalist who 20 years ago courageously broke the first story of clergy sexual abuse and church attempts to cover it up in Louisiana. Berry and Gerald Renner, former religion writer for the Hartford Courant, collaborated in interviewing subjects.

It’s a book that profiles several men in Mexico and the United States who claim they were molested by the charismatic Maciel, a priest known as a great fund-raiser and champion of a supposedly strict old-fashioned Catholicism.

It was the 1989 letter of the Rev. Juan Vaca to Pope John Paul that struck Berry’s conscience. The priest, who had left the legion some years before to work in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, in New York, requested that the pope dispense him from the priesthood. His letter included detailed accusations of Maciel’s sexual exploitation of members of the Legion of Christ. It was Vaca’s third attempt, since 1976, to get the Vatican to investigate Maciel.

These charges, along with testimony from a second ex-Legion priest, had caused Bishop John McGann to send the accusations each time, as required by canon law, to the Vatican. McGann, Berry says, “did the right thing and forwarded them to Rome. But no action was taken.” Berry concluded that, “Either these guys were way off or one of the most powerful priests in Rome was being sheltered from any investigations.”

Further reporting, including the discovery that other bishops, including the late John Cardinal O’Connor of New York, had been telling the pope directly about clergy sex abuse, led Berry and Renner to a reluctant conclusion: The responsibility for the disastrous management of the clerical sex abuse scandal does not fall on an American, or any other, bishops, but on the pope himself.

For example, in 1993, Archbishop Ronald Mulkerans of Ballarac, Australia, distraught at the impact of the pedophile crisis in his diocese, spoke at length with Pope John Paul. The pope responded by referring to Christ in Gethsemane: “Being in agony he prayed the longer.”

The authors argue that John Paul either did not, or did not want, to understand the gravity of the problem and the direct involvement of Maciel. After charges were formally brought against Maciel in 1988 at the Vatican, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger stopped the proceedings. Maciel, over the years, had demanded from members of his order not only the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but a fourth one _ never to speak ill of him and to inform on those who did.

“The Legion of Christ is building schools across the United States,” Berry says, “using orthodoxy as the lure and claiming that the world is bad and Catholics need to flee it. The archbishop of Atlanta has turned diocesan education over to his group. The legion wants to build a school in Los Angeles and universities in Sacramento and in Westchester County in New York. The legion’s style of psychological coercion leads to strife and splits communities badly. Bishop James Griffin of Columbus, Ohio, investigated and barred the legion from involvement there.”

While ordinary priests can be turned out on a single unproven report of supposed sexual abuse, the 84-year-old Maciel, despite the multiple charges against him, thrives in Rome. The investigative journalists see this polarizing figure, whose model seems less that of St. Francis and more that of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, as living in the eye of a hurricane that Vatican officials neither understand nor name correctly.

“(The) central issue here,” Berry says, “is structural mendacity, that is, a church institution that cannot tell the truth. The church gets rid of Father Tom Doyle for trying to expose the problem but protects Maciel who is part of the problem.

“Punishing the likes of Doyle and favoring someone like Maciel will bring on a collision of epic proportions: Honest Catholics don’t want a seductive-repressive approach to the crisis. They want the truth.”

MO/JL END KENNEDY