Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The first apostolic visitation of the Legionaries of Christ: 1956-1959

The Vatican’s second decision to conduct an official investigation, a so-called apostolic visitation, of the Catholic religious congregation the Legionaries of Christ was made public on March 31, not long after the 50th anniversary of February 6, 1959, the day Legionary founder Rev. Marcial Maciel counted as the day of his reinstatement after the conclusion of the first. Few know the full story of the first visitation: it concluded obscurely and Father Maciel and the Legionaries were able to misrepresent it for fifty years afterward. But the visitation did occur and actually concluded that Maciel needed to be removed from office and that the Legionaries needed reform. The Legionaries defeated that first apostolic visitation with untruth, appetizing presentation, and the help of curial friends. This is something that anyone interested in the honest outcome of today’s visitation needs to be aware of.

(This account of the first visitation draws substantially from Fernando M. González Los Legionarios de Cristo; testimonios y documentos inéditos (Mexico City: Tusquets Editores 2006), which has not been much discussed in English. González publishes documents of the case verbatim (some in facsimile) from two archives, one that of Father Luis Ferreira Correa, Legionary vicar general at the time, supplied by José Barba, and another made available to him by a source. This account also draws from Jason Berry and the late Gerald Renner Vows of Silence (New York: Free Press 2004), the standard account of the first visitation in English, which, however, González greatly supplements.)

(Accompanying this article is a timeline of the first apostolic visitation of the Legionaries of Christ.)

(Update 19 July: wxre has briefly summarized this article in Italian within the larger discussion of “Chi Era Realmente Marcial Maciel?”)

Cardinal Valerio Valeri, prefect of the Vatican Congregation of the Affairs of Religious, ordered the first apostolic visitation of the Legionaries in 1956. He was prefect from 1953 to his death in 1963 at 79. He had been the apostolic nuncio to France accredited during the war to the Vichy government and then forced from France after liberation by Charles de Gaulle, to be succeeded there by Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII.

Though by 1954 Maciel hoped his institute was close to definitive Vatican approval and Valeri was supportive enough in February 1956 to have approved the new name “Legionaries of Christ,” Maciel, aged 36 in 1956, was becoming incapacitated from addiction to narcotic painkillers Dolantin and Demerol. On January 3, 1956 Spaniard Legionary Father Rafael Arumí, 29, novice master at the Legionary College in Rome, found Maciel so unstable from drugs that he summoned from Mexico Father Luis Ferreira Correa, 41, rector of the Legionary apostolic school (minor seminary) at Tlalpan in Mexico City and Legionary vicar general. The crisis lasted for days. Arumí, Ferreira, and Spaniard Legionary Father Antonio Lagoa, 36, rector of the Legionary College in Rome, considered how to deal with the scandal and contemplated Maciel’s replacement as superior. Valeri was hearing such things from sources in Rome and Mexico and himself saw Maciel in poor condition detoxing in Salvator Mundi Hospital in Rome in spring 1956.

Two Legionaries took responsibility (treasonably, as Maciel saw it) for informing authorities: Ferreira Correa and Spaniard Brother Federico Domínguez, prefect of studies at Tlalpan, who as Maciel’s private secretary had observed him closely.

In a letter dated August 24, 1954, Domínguez, then 27, had reported Maciel’s shortcomings to the vicar general of the Mexico City archdiocese: he doesn’t follow the religious rule, recite the Breviary, or meditate. He disrespects confidentiality in matters of conscience. He uses “lies, distortions, exaggerations” and acts as if “the ends justify the means.” He lacks the spirit of religious poverty, travels first class, eats luxurious food rather than that prepared for the community, spends more time in the houses of women donors than in his own religious houses. He considers his desire for sexual gratification to be a urological problem. He gives himself narcotic injections and carefully conceals it. “Under the effect of the drugs, he makes magnificent plans of apostolate and [violating confidentiality] talks publicly about the private defects of those he is with. This is understood by the religious who don’t know what is going on as a proof of Father Maciel’s ‘spiritual clairvoyance.’”

Domínguez’s letter got back to Maciel, who then to help him discredit Domínguez sought out Belgian Benedictine Gregorio Lemercier, prior of the Benedictine priory he founded near Cuernavaca. Lemercier was an unlikely potential ally, a pioneer in the use of psychoanalysis in vocational discernment and religious life and a well-read exponent of liturgical renewal, who ten years later would himself fall foul of Vatican authorities. Maciel had miscalculated: if Lemercier first had the impression that Domínguez needed counseling, he soon gathered that Maciel himself was the problem and instructed Domínguez, then Ferreira, to report the drug and sex abuse they knew about before leaving the Legion, as they intended to do.

By summer 1956, four Mexican bishops knew at least something about the Maciel problem, the archbishops of Mexico City, Morelia, and Yucatan, and the bishop of Cuernavaca. Cuernavaca Bishop Sergio Méndez Arceo wrote cautiously on August 14 to Arcadio Larraona, Secretary of the Vatican Congregation of the Affairs of Religious, recommending Maciel’s removal and an investigation of three charges: “devious and lying behavior, use of narcotic drugs, acts of sodomy with boys of the congregation.” On August 31 Mexico City Archbishop Miguel Darío Miranda also wrote to Larraona agreeing that “immediate intervention is necessary” in the Maciel case and reiterating those three charges: “sins against the sixth commandment committed with members of the congregation,” drug addiction, and mendacity to achieve his ends.

Ferreira had on August 23 written at length to the Mexico City vicar general about a number of cases of Maciel’s “impurely touching” apostolic school boys and subsequent explanation, when the boys had told Ferreira of this, that he had been in pain and must have been unconscious. He told the story of Maciel’s drug crisis in Rome in early January and wrote of Maciel’s lies and evasions and his theory of having a urological problem that required emission of semen.

The three letters from August 1956 – those of Méndez Arceo, Darío Miranda, and Ferreira Correa – document an important point: the charge of sexual abuse was part of what triggered the original investigation of Maciel. Maciel never admitted that, claiming, as in his book-length autobiographical interview with Jesús Colina, Christ is My Life (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press 2003 (English version)), that what he called the “slanders” against him involved only drugs and lies. The standard understanding of this is conveyed, for example, in the Wikipedia article, “Sexual abuse scandal in the Legion of Christ”: “In 1956 the Vatican had him removed as superior and investigated allegations of drug abuse… There are no records of any members reporting sexual abuse at that time.”

Things moved quickly. On September 20 Larraona had the documentation sent to Domenico Tardini, Secretary of the Roman Curia, suggesting the Pope be informed and that Maciel step down and find help. Maciel’s suspension, signed by Valeri and dated the next day, was relayed through the Apostolic Delegation in Mexico, as Larraona had asked, sidestepping Cardinal Giuseppe Pizzardo, Secretary of the Holy Office, a Maciel friend.

Maciel arrived in Rome by October 1 and on October 3 wrote to Valeri, accepting his suspension by the Congregation respectfully, “with absolute submission and unconditional compliance,” and agreeing “to go to a clinic, suspended for that time from the exercise of my responsibility of superior general of the Institute.” All the same he claimed good health, enclosing as evidence a certificate from papal physician Ricardo Galeazzi Lisi (who as it turned out would be dismissed from papal service later in 1956 amid talk of gambling debts and caused distaste in 1958 by selling photos and stories of Pius XII’s dying days) and declared himself the victim of calumny. Maciel was exiled to Spain, restricted from Rome. Legionary administration for the time being was taken up by Lagoa, as College rector; Arumí, as novice master; and Ferreira, as vicar general, assisted by Domínguez.

On October 13 Valeri appointed as apostolic visitator Anastasio (of the Holy Rosary) Ballestrero, general superior of the Discalced Carmelites. Anastasio was 43, born in Genoa in 1913, a Discalced Carmelite priest from 1936. He served as general superior from 1955 to 1967 and would become archbishop of Bari in 1973 and of Turin in 1977 and a cardinal made by Pope John Paul II in 1979.

The Legion geared up to obstruct the visitation. In August or September, Maciel asked Legionary José Domínguez, Federico’s brother, to help draft an official religious vow for Legionaries to take, never to criticize a superior and to report those who do. Maciel explained this “second private vow” in a long letter dated September 15, 1956, addressed to all the Legionaries of the Front of Mexico. He wrote:
The vow in question is a formal commitment contracted with God which consists in: First, not expressing externally, in any way, either orally, in writing, or by physical gestures, anything which might result in the detriment of the person or the AUTHORITY of the Superior. Secondly, notifying your Superior as a soon as possible if you should realize that another member of the Institute has faulted against the vow thus understood….

The Private Vow has as its specific purpose the safeguarding of the criterion and principle of authority in the Legion and the making of a more efficacious government through the absolute ADHERENCE to the Superior as authority and as a person in order to ultimately obtain a compact and internal union as Christ ardently desired in the last supper: “That they all may be one… (John 17.21)”…

The Private Vow guards against all external criticism, not only [of] acts of government and authority of the Superior but also his entire human personality: temperament, character, physical, intellectual and moral defects and his way of proceeding in any area outside the exercise of his authority. Consequently the Superior MUST SIMPLY BE RESPECTED regardless of any negative aspect whatsoever….
The fruits of the vow were intended to be the “COMPACT UNION between Superiors and subjects,” “THE PRACTICE OF CHARITY,” and “SELF DOMINION.” He wrote:
I am well aware that because of the strong conflicting forces of our nature it is not an easy vow to fulfill. But it is Christ who has wished to inspire this providential means in his Legion and who will give strength to each and every one who makes it up and who forms its ranks so that this vow may be held in esteem and fulfilled as something that truly constitutes the heart of the Legion...
Though there is evidence for its existence in some form as early as 1950, the trademark Legionary “vow of charity” was a heritage of the very moment that occurred between the Mexican bishops’ letters asking for intervention and the appointment of an apostolic visitation less than two months later. The private vow was taken by Legionaries until Pope Benedict reportedly put an end to it in 2007.

The language of persecution and martyrdom came easily to Maciel, who grew up during the Mexican Cristero war. In August he told Juan Vaca, Legionary seminarian from Mexico, aged 19, and future accuser, “You know they are enemies. The devil has managed to put them inside the Vatican to destroy the Legion. If they destroy it, they destroy the work of God and your vocation.” In October he told seminarian Alejandro Espinosa, future author of El Legionario (2003), “Remember: you saw nothing, you know nothing, you heard nothing!” Before leaving for Spain, Maciel issued instructions from the clinic he entered in outer Rome: “Don’t tell them what they cannot understand and will misinterpret as a pretext to destroy the Legion.”

José Barba, another Mexican seminarian and future accuser, remembers Maciel’s tearful farewell speech on October 10: “I have been attacked and am subjected to a great test by my enemies… The Legion is said to be a good work, but what is the chance that the Legion, the tree, the branches, and the fruits are good, but I, the trunk, am evil? What sense is there in that?”

After Maciel’s departure, days before the arrival of the visitators, Legionaries of the time remember Lagoa calling them into assembly hall to tell them to be prudent, quiet, and faithful. Documents were secreted. Legionaries suspected of wanting to cooperate were moved away from Rome. José Domínguez, fourth vow drafter, was removed to Naples.

Ferreira and Federico Domínguez, who had reported Maciel to authorities, were marginalized. Domínguez said, “None of my old friends would talk to me. It was circle the wagons… The Carmelite was not getting any information from the people there.” Vaca admitted that, at the suggestion of Maciel himself, he would stir laxative into Ferreira’s morning coffee. Ferreira developed severe diarrhea, and, unable to discover its cause and sick for months, returned to Mexico in December.

Even from exile, Maciel managed a “mischievous presence” to his institute, in Alejandro Espinosa’s phrase. He would secretly meet Legionaries once a month on the outskirts of Rome or in a bus and joke, “I’m on a bus, not on Roman soil. I’m not disobedient!” The administration of Lagoa and Arumí served in some respects as a dodge for Maciel to continue to run the congregation.

Anastasio conducted his investigation of the Legionary College in Rome from October to February 1957, assisted by his own Discalced Carmelite vicar general, Benjamin (of the Holy Trinity) Lachaert. He interviewed each seminarian briefly and studied the Constitutions and the founder’s letters. Carmelite Father Ippolito (of the Holy Family) visited the Legionary apostolic school (minor seminary) in Ontaneda (Santander) Spain in the first week of December.

Conflicted young Legionaries were agonized, bound securely by vow of charity to the Legion and Father Maciel. If Maciel was a saint, as they believed, if the Church had approved the Legion, why was the Church now investigating? A Mexican seminarian, 19, José Antonio Pérez Olvera, remembers the visitator’s threatening him with excommunication unless he told the full truth, but lying even so: “I felt proud of my fidelity to Father Maciel. He was above canonical right, above the Church, its precepts, its magisterium. He had breakfast daily with the Sacred Heart… Still, my conscience would not let me rest… Canonically I was excommunicated.” “I lied,” says Barba. “I lied,” says Vaca.

Anastasio did not develop evidence about drug and sex abuse sufficient to render judgment. But in four months he nevertheless learned enough to reach harsh conclusions in his report, dated February 11, 1957. In the report, he recognized that the seminarians were reticent, uncomfortable, and coached and that he hadn’t gotten the full truth. The institute was “juridical chaos” with structures in violation of canon law and spiritually fragile. Its young members had been “fanaticized” by the founder, “but it is substantially healthy and well-intentioned and offers hope insofar as it can be freed from fanaticism. Which seems doubtful.”

Anastasio therefore recommended: return Legionary headquarters and schools to Mexico from Rome and Spain; allow the Legion new members only at the discretion of the Holy See; add Mexican episcopal oversight; forbid new initiatives; name an appropriate new superior from outside the institute; revise the Constitutions radically, abolishing the idiosyncratic Legionary vows. “Maciel must be removed from office as fundamentally and solely responsible for the many serious juridical irregularities and administrative abuses. Silence about the rest appears prudent for internal and external reasons, at least for the moment.”

Anastasio had worked briskly, taking time from administering his own order, filed his report, asked to be relieved, and must have thought that the work was done. But two new and less critical apostolic visitators succeeded him (for what reason is unclear) and they neutralized his recommendations.

On July 10, 1957 to succeed Anastasio in Rome Valeri named Msgr. Alfredo Bontempi, 62, rector of the Nepomucenum, the Czech Pontifical College in Rome. Born in 1894 in Castelfidardo, a town in the Marches, Bontempi served as rector from 1950 until his death in 1963. He would be ordained bishop and granted a titular see in 1962. After six months of his own experience with the Legionaries, Bontempi told the Congregation of the Affairs of Religious on January 24, 1958, that the Legionaries had warmed to him and that he was impressed by the “spirit of piety” in their seminary. He noted that the library lacked the works of Congar, de Lubac, and Maritain; he liked the vow of charity; he had told Arumí that his report would reflect favorably on the founder because “the tree is known by its fruits.”

Also appointed that day was a new visitator for Legionary houses in Mexico and Spain, a Belgian Franciscan missionary to Chile, Polidoro van Vlierberghe, 48, who from 1961 would become apostolic administrator and territorial prelate of Illapel, Chile. Polidoro became mouthpiece for Maciel’s versions of events: Anastasio should have been more balanced; ambitious Ferreira and the Jesuits had intrigued against Maciel; accusations came from bad sources; the institute has borne its sufferings with faith. In January 1958 Anastasio criticized Polidoro’s perspective to Larraona -- the Jesuits must be given a chance to respond to so serious an accusation, for one thing -- but did not prevail.

Though a 1964 curial summary of earlier documents noted that “the conclusions don’t appear to correspond to the logic of the facts,” the Maciel case was concluded along the lines of a compromise proposed on September 10, 1958, by Redemptorist Domenico Mozzicarelli, an official in the Congregation of the Affairs of Religious who dealt with apostolic visitations. Even if Maciel’s removal seemed advisable, the Legion was built on his “mysterious” personality and no new superior could replace his “heroic mysticism” or his ability to fundraise. Because of “its great good mixed with bad” the institute should continue. A smoldering wick should not be quenched. So a compromise: leave to Valeri when eventually to restore Maciel, reserve the right to further visitations, appoint the counsel general and financial officer required by canon law, and absolutely forbid Maciel from giving spiritual direction, much less hearing confession, or otherwise intruding on the internal forum of members of the congregation. (This last in accordance with 1917 Canon Law Code canon 530, which strictly forbade religious superiors from coercing a manifestation of conscience from a subordinate under obedience.) The Congregation of the Affairs of Religious wrote Cardinal Clemente Micara on October 13, 1958 reinstating Maciel on roughly those terms. On February 6, 1959 Micara wrote Maciel.

Pope Pius XII died October 9 and Pope John XXIII was elected October 28. It has never been clear why the reinstatement of Maciel was issued in the papal interregnum or why it fell to Micara, Cardinal Vicar General of Rome from 1951 to his death at 85 in 1965, to deliver it, or why he delayed it for four months. In any event, another curial summary from 1962 states that in settling the Maciel matter the Congregation of the Affairs of Religious could not go further than the Mozzicarelli compromise because of the “recommendations and interventions of high persons.” Who those were we don’t know, but in his autobiographical interview, Christ is My Life, for helping him survive the visitation Maciel thanks Cardinals Micara, Pizzardo, Gaetano Cicognani (Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura), Giovanni Piazza (Discalced Carmelite Secretary of what is now the Congregation for Bishops), and Federico Tedeschini (Apostolic Datary).

So Maciel and the Legion were cleared and moved on. The discontinuity in Vatican administration in October 1958 may account for why Maciel was never held to the stipulated restrictions on his ministry. After Maciel’s reinstatement, Ferreira left the Legion to serve in the archdiocese of Morelia (Michoacán) Mexico until he died in 2001. Domínguez transferred to Maynooth seminary in Dublin, in fall 1957 also left the Legion, eventually married, and lived in Los Angeles. Lagoa, at 80 in 2001, and Arumí, at 79 in 2006, both died as Legionary priests. In 2003 Maciel eulogized Lagoa as “close to me in the great trials and tribulations of the Legion: he remained faithful, unmoved, and he unconditionally bore witness to his love for Christ by fulfilling his mission.”

The investigators of today’s visitation – not yet named officially, but reported to be Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.; Alessandria, Italy Bishop Giuseppe Versaldi; Tepic, Mexico Bishop Ricardo Watty Urquidi, M.Sp.S; and Gregorian University Rector Gianfranco Ghirlanda, S.J. -- may wish to apply the lessons of history as they begin their work. And if fifty years ago the Vatican ignored the conclusions of its first visitator and missed the chance to abbreviate Father Maciel’s damaging career, it may well consider the consequences for the future of doing a superficial job of dealing with the Legionaries now, though the second visitation will doubtless be held more accountable than the first.

How the first visitation ended is itself an issue for the second. High Vatican officials were among those who enabled Father Maciel’s double life by annulling the recommendations of Anastasio in February 1957 and Mozzicarelli in September 1958. Since 1997, when Berry and Renner began to report the efforts of Vaca, Barba, and others to bring Maciel to justice for the abuse they covered up for him under duress forty years before, the Legionaries relied repeatedly in his public defense on what they claimed was his Vatican clearing after thorough investigation.

Addressing the first visitation with Jesús Colina in Christ is my Life, Maciel spoke untruthfully when he said, “no official written document ever reached me.” He wrote a resignation. Or when he said, “I was denied any possibility of defense.” or “the accusations [were] amply proven false.” González in 2002 managed confirmation from the then Discalced Carmelite superior general that Fathers Anastasio and Benjamin did serve as apostolic visitators in 1956-8. Colina, director of the Legionary affiliated Zenit news service, was journalist less enterprising when in the interview he allowed Maciel to refer to Bontempi and Polidoro, his supporters, as the “two visitators.” For emphasis Maciel noted that in 2003 Polidoro was (at 94) still alive. (He would live to be 97 and died in 2006.) In a letter to the Hartford Courant December 20, 1996, according to Berry and Renner, the Legionaries stated falsely that visitator Anastasio had died, though he lived until June 21, 1998, to age 84.

That Pope Benedict abolished the private Legionary vow of charity in 2007, 50 years after Anastasio’s recommendation, does not in itself guarantee that the visitators will hear the whole truth when interviewing Legionaries. The March 31 words of current Legionary General Director Álvaro Corcuera did promise welcome and cooperation to the visitation, but the two Legionary camps that have emerged since the revelation of Maciel’s daughter on February 3, the “full disclosure” group and the “carry on with the charism” group, are clearly the successors of the camps of 50 years ago, the small “cooperate with the Vatican” group and the loyal “circle the wagons and lie” group. There has not so far been much, let alone full, disclosure. Committed curial Legionary supporters Cardinals Franc Rodé, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and Angelo Sodano, Secretary Emeritus of State and Dean of the College of Cardinals, are the successors in our day of Pizzardo et al.

Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, a Legionary critic, who himself served as an apostolic visitator of Catholic seminaries in America from 2005 to 2008 in an interview with National Catholic Reporter in April could not say he was confident that the Legionaries would cooperate fully with the visitation. “It depends on so many individuals being open, because it just takes a few to try to block it and to mislead,” he said.

To know history is to realize that Maciel’s fraudulence was already spelled out to Church authorities more than fifty years ago: the double life, excessive time spent with benefactresses, sexual abuse, coercive vocational pressure, cult of personality, arrogant superiority to the Church, financial irregularities, fanaticized members who need deprogramming. It is to recognize that many tropes in defense of Maciel are also more than fifty years old: it looks too good to be bad, it’s a new cross to bear, Maciel was unconscious or ill when he did it, judge the tree by its fruits.

History demonstrates what long institutional experience the Legionaries have of cultivating complaisant churchmen and resisting ecclesiastical oversight, covering up for their mysterious, charismatic founder, and justifying their institutional survival with effective fundraising and other goods mixed with bad. The visitators will have to be on their guard. What apostolic visitator Anastasio wrote in January 1958 remains true: “The problem of this visitation is precisely to try to avoid the passion pro and con. At least for now it’s necessary to prescind from personalities and judge deeds with a strictly juridical criterion.”


  1. A great service to English speakers and students of Maciel and Legion History is the English translation of passages from Fernando Gonzalez research. Gonzalez' book is the most serious historical study to date; he gained access to the archives of the original investigatores, among them some Claretians priests and monsignors, who did the digging, interviewing Maciel and Legion superiors on several occasions.

  2. Well done Cassandra!

    Mary Alexander

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  4. WOW Cassandra, well researched. I need time to reflect on this. I guess my initial thoughts are the weakness of Holy Mother Church, as a whole, to stop Fr. Marcial. My second thought is how great it would be if the Legion were reformed to help victims of abuse.

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