Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Independent Legionary statement is now unlikely

This is a piece I wrote on March 15.

The new scandal involving Rev. Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, which broke on February 3, divided among themselves both Legionaries and senior Catholic churchmen over the future of the order. Now six weeks later, the side that wanted an order still independent and reliant on what it took to be an infallible Church approval of its charism is ceding to the side that wants Vatican intervention and radical reform. Some Legionaries now understand that their own statement of full accounting, promised but overdue, is now unlikely to be made, because the order is no longer in a position to decide on its own authority how much to reveal about the founder’s secret life or to determine its own future.

The “pro-independent Legionaries” side was set back on February 24, the day their statement about founder and future was expected and then failed to appear. The day before, February 23, Cardinal Franc Rodé, head of the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which oversees Catholic religious orders, and longtime Legionary supporter, had encouraged Legionaries by video.

That same day Catholic News Agency reported the imminent release of a “major statement,” information leaked to them by Vatican officials. CNA, relying on an unnamed official from Rodé’s Congregation, had on February 8 previously reported Cardinal Rodé’s initial intention to let the Legionaries work the scandal out for themselves without intervention.

Instead, the Legionaries’ statement was deferred and on the next day, February 25, Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O’Brien in his archdiocesan Catholic Review called for a review of the “very basis of the Legion movement.”

The Legion likes to cultivate Vatican patrons. Two senior Legionary supporters have been Cardinal Rodé, who for more than two years after Father Maciel was disciplined in May 2006 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the body with responsibility for investigating charges of abuse by priests) has often publicly declared his belief in a valid Legionary charism communicated by Maciel, and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, former Secretary of State and dean of the College of Cardinals, who in 1999 sought to impede Cardinal Josef Ratzinger’s CDF investigation of Maciel and whose secretariat in 2005 issued an unsigned document denying an investigation was even underway.

Mexico City Archbishop Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera has also long been a Legionary friend. He defended Maciel in 1997 as the victim of a conspiracy and in 2006 supported the Legionary misinterpretation of the CDF’s suspension of Maciel. As primate of Mexico, he would likely be involved in any future for the Mexican order.

O’Brien had decided in early 2008 to ban the Legion from Baltimore for their “lack of pastoral transparency” and the “undue pressure” sometimes applied to recruits “in a context of secrecy,” but was talked out of it by three Vatican cardinals, as he told National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen last June. But now Sydney Archbishop Cardinal George Pell has joined O’Brien on the “pro-intervention and reform” side. Pell called publicly for Vatican intervention while in Oxford, England, March 5-6, it was reported this week in the (London) Catholic Herald.

As the first cardinal to say this publicly, one also rumored on Catholic blogs to be under consideration for appointment as head of a Vatican Congregation, Pell lent added seriousness to the notion of an independent investigation or Vatican takeover of the Legionaries.

Pell is also someone who knows from experience about accusations and judicious procedure for resolving them. In 2002 he was himself accused of having abused a child and was exonerated.

The seeming ineptitude of Rev. Alvaro Corcuera, the order’s Director General, and the order’s senior leadership has contributed to the failure to keep the Legionaries independent of Vatican intervention. What Corcuera wrote, for example, in a February 4 letter on the scandal, “I am grateful to [Father Maciel] for being the instrument God used to give my entire life meaning… it would be impossible to find enough words to thank him." seemed inappropriate to the occasion and angered some Legionaries. Some, including American Rev. Thomas Berg, wanted immediate, full public disclosure of Maciel’s wrongdoing, which even now has been admitted to only in the most general terms, and an independent investigation.

Maciel picked Corcuera to succeed as Director General in January 2005, after Maciel declined reelection and stepped down. This was a month after the CDF reopened the investigation that would lead 18 months later to Maciel’s suspension as a priest. Corcuera, it was suspected at the time, was intended as a complaisant surrogate through whom Maciel might still direct the Legion from exile. Now, however congenial, he is thought entirely overmatched by the crisis.

Vatican intervention could take several forms. Rumors of a “visitation” surfaced in Italian and Spanish press 10 days ago. “Apostolic visitation” is technical Vatican language for investigation by an outsider to the order. This could be entrusted to Rodé’s Congregation, within whose immediate responsibility the matter falls. However, Rodé’s objectivity is compromised by his past support of Maciel and the visitation might be organized elsewhere. More radically, a “pontifical delegate” could be appointed immediately without further investigation, technical language for the complete takeover of the order by a chosen representative of the pope.

A Vatican decision on the Legionaries’ future may take time. The Church will consider the preservation of lay Legionary apostolic networks in Latin America, which are among the few it has there, and the personal destinies of some 700 Legionary priests, 2000 seminarians, and thousands of members of Regnum Christi, the affiliated lay association.

Add to that the unwelcome media response to two recent decisions -- the appointment of a bishop to Linz and the remission of excommunication of an SSPX bishop – and the Vatican will be thoughtful in how it proceeds.

Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, has acted deliberately over more than four years in the matter of Father Maciel, reopening the case in the CDF in December 2004, concluding it in May 2006 with Maciel’s suspension, doing away with the private Legionary vow in 2007, and he may well continue to be slow and sure.

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