Plinio Lepri, Associated Press
VATICAN CITY — First, one of the Legion of Christ's top officials abruptly quit the troubled religious order in frustration over the slow pace of change. Then priests in the cult-like movement empowered proteges and associates of the order's disgraced founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, to vote for their next leader.
The past month has seen some setbacks the Legion's efforts to rehabilitate itself as it moves toward electing a new leadership next month, the culmination of a three-year Vatican experiment aiming to overhaul a damaged order. Yet even as the Legion prepares to present a new face, high-ranking members continue to speak nostalgically and even reverently of Maciel — a sexual predator who molested his seminarians, fathered three children and was, in the words of Vatican-appointed investigators, "devoid of scruples and authentic religious meaning."
It all means that hopes are dwindling that the Vatican's effort to radically reform the Legion has succeeded, raising the question of what Pope Francis will do with the once-powerful and wealthy order after the mandate of the papal envoy running it expires.
Francis' predecessor, Benedict XVI, took over the Legion in 2010 and appointed a Vatican cardinal to govern it after investigators determined that the congregation itself needed to be "purified" of Maciel's influence. In reality, the Vatican knew well of Maciel's crimes for decades but turned a blind eye, impressed instead by his ability to bring millions of dollars and thousands of seminarians into to the church.
Rome's failure to stop him marks the most egregious case of its indifference to victims of priestly sexual abuse, and has tarnished the legacy of Pope John Paul II, soon to be canonized, because he had held up the Legion as a model for the faithful.
To be sure, some progress has been made during the past three years of Vatican receivership: The order rewrote its constitutions, released statistics about sex abuse cases, and a well-respected priest recently begged forgiveness from Maciel's victims for how he and the Legion ignored and defamed them. But if recent elections in the Legion's consecrated lay branches are any indication, the membership itself has voted for the status quo.
That mindset has driven dozens of disillusioned priests and hundreds of seminarians and consecrated members out of the order: On Saturday, the Legion will ordain 31 new priests, half as many as were ordained just three years ago.
Last month, the Legion's reform-minded governing counselor, the Rev. Deomar De Guedes, announced that he was not only resigning his position but was leaving the congregation altogether, a major blow coming just weeks before the Jan. 8 assembly to approve the new constitutions and elect a new superior.
In his farewell letter, De Guedes said he didn't have the strength to carry on. But the Legion's spokesman, the Rev. Benjamin Clariond, acknowledged that De Guedes was often the "minority" in pressing for deeper and faster reform and that this was a source of "tension" for him.
"We grant that the reform has gone slowly up to now," Clariond said in an email. "That is because we intend to effect changes that are not just cosmetic, but that address the underlying causes of the problems ... As is understandable, this takes time."
But with the mandate of the papal delegate, Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, ending after the assembly, key questions are being asked now that will pose a major test for Francis: Has the Legion truly shed the cult-like practices that French bishops recently denounced in a letter to victims of spiritual abuse? Will Francis approve the constitutions and essentially give the Legion a clean bill of health? Or will he make some provision for continued Vatican oversight after De Paolis leaves?
Francis has already said the Legion's assembly, or General Chapter, isn't the end of the reform process but merely a "step."
Yet the process itself seems questionable when even the Legion's current leader continues to speak fondly of Maciel.
In a recent interview with a Spanish-language online journal, Vida Nueva, the Rev. Sylvester Heereman said that regardless of the bad things Maciel did, "he continues to be someone to whom I owe a lot, whom I remember with a mixture of gratitude and compassion, even though I understand and respect those who personally suffered and cannot share those feelings."
Recently, a senior member of the Legion's consecrated lay branch, Alejandro Pinelo Leon, visited Maciel's tomb in Cotija, Mexico on a pilgrimage of sorts: "Our founder teaches us many things and before his tomb I got emotional and thanked him for all that I learned about God from him," he wrote on Facebook.
The Rev. Thomas Berg, an American priest who left the Legion in 2009, said such nostalgia shows that a considerable portion of the Legion membership is still unable to shake itself from Maciel's toxic influence.
"The continual resurgence in private and public of the story-line that Macial is a 'flawed instrument,' but an instrument of God no less, is proof in the pudding that the purification has not gone deep enough," he said.
Other indications include the roster of men who will elect the next superior: They include 19 existing superiors and 42 priests elected by the Legionary membership to represent them. The existing superiors include many of the top Legion priests who were close to Maciel and his successor. Electors chosen by the rank and file to represent them include Maciel proteges or still other associates. One recently was forced to explain a bizarre correspondence with a woman under his spiritual guidance.
"With so much of the old guard, so many men who Maciel put in as superiors, and younger priests formed under their influence and supervision, there is no hope of serious reform," said Glenn Favreau, who left the Legion in 1997 before being ordained a priest and later co-founded ReGain, an online community for former Legion priests that was sued by the Legion after parts of the order's constitutions were posted on an Internet message board.
Clariond, the Legion spokesman, defended the roster of electors as being fair and representative.
"If you consider that for 42 of the people participating this is their first General Chapter we really cannot be speaking of an 'old guard,'" he said. "We feel confident that all views will be present, and that the work of renewal will continue on."
But Xavier Leger, a French seminarian who left the Legion in 2006, said the Vatican's reform was flawed from the start since the Holy See has relied almost exclusively on current Legion members for its information.
"When you are confronted with cult-like behavior," said Leger, "the testimony of someone who is under the influence of a cult, this testimony cannot be trusted."
According to Berg, the American priest, there was never any way the Legion could reinvent itself in such a short time.
"Such a toxic environment cannot be rehabilitated in a matter of three short years," Berg said in an email to AP. "While the Legionaries desperately want to believe that they are nearing the completion of the reform, this is just one further indication of their inability to deal with reality."
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield
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