VATICAN CITY — The superior general of the troubled Legion of Christ religious order has stepped aside unexpectedly, saying he simply doesn't have the energy to oversee the radical reform of the congregation ordered by the Vatican.
The Rev. Alvaro Corcuera said in a letter obtained Thursday that his 38-year-old vicar general, the Rev. Sylvester Heereman, would govern the order until a planned general assembly in 2013 or 2014 to elect a new superior. Corcuera will retain his title, but no longer run the Legion.
The Legion has been in turmoil ever since it acknowledged in 2009 that its founder, the late Rev. Marcial Maciel, sexually abused his seminarians and fathered three children. The Vatican took it over in 2010 after a yearlong investigation determined that the Legion's very culture had been infected by Maciel's influence and needed to be "purified."
Corcuera worked closely with Maciel after being named superior in 2005 but has insisted he didn't know of Maciel's crimes. Nevertheless, Legion critics have long demanded his removal, saying the entire Legion leadership should have stepped aside as soon as the revelations of Maciel's double life came out, and that no real reform can take place as long as Maciel's hand-picked subordinates remain in positions of power.
Earlier this year, Corcuera admitted that he knew in 2005 that the Legion's most prominent priest, the Rev. Thomas Williams, had fathered a child, yet he kept the news secret and allowed Williams to keep teaching and preaching about morality.
Williams admitted his paternity publicly in May after inquiries by The Associated Press and is no longer teaching.
In his letter to the Legion membership, Corcuera said that even though he isn't suffering from any specific illness, he doesn't have the "health and energy necessary to responsibly deal with the requirements of governing" the Legion and its lay movement Regnum Christi as it undergoes the Vatican-mandated reform process.
The pope's delegate overseeing the reform of the Legion, Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, said in an accompanying letter that he accepted Corcuera's decision with regret, although he said it was he who had suggested that Corcuera take a sabbatical for the sake of his health.
"It's a painful decision that has brought suffering to everyone, but is believed necessary for the good of the Legion and Father Alvaro himself," De Paolis wrote.
De Paolis has said he needed the Legion's leadership to stay in place during the reform process, saying his aim wasn't to decapitate the Legion's governing structure but rather change the culture and mindset of its entire membership.
The scandal surrounding the Legion is particularly grave given that Maciel was held up as a model for the faithful by Pope John Paul II, who was impressed by the orthodox order's ability to attract money and young men to the priesthood.
Maciel's double life, and the continuing problems of the cult-like order, have cast a shadow over John Paul's legacy. The Vatican knew of Maciel's crimes as early as the mid-1950s, yet he continued to enjoy the highest Vatican praise and access until he was finally sanctioned by Rome in 2006. Maciel stepped down as superior in 2005, when Corcuera took over.
The German-born Heereman represents something of the new generation of the Legion, ordained in 2006 — after Maciel stepped down — although he is still a product of the Maciel-era priest training program, which he entered in 1994. He was head of the Legion in Germany and then all of Western Europe before being named vicar general in February.
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