10 years after Vatican reform, Legion of Christ in new abuse crisis
MEXICO CITY - The administrator of the elite Catholic school in Cancun, Mexico, used to take the girls out of class and send them to the chapel, where the priest from the Legion of Christ religious order would sexually abuse them.
“As some were reading the Bible, he would rape the others in front of them, little girls aged 6 to 8 or 9,” said one of his victims, Ana Lucia Salazar, now a 36-year-old Mexican television host and mother of three.
“Afterward, nothing was the same, nothing went back to the way it was,” she said through tears at her home in Mexico City.
Salazar's horrific story, which has been corroborated by other victims and the Legion itself, has sparked a new credibility crisis for the once-influential order, 10 years after the Holy See took it over after determining that its founder was a pedophile.
But more importantly, it has called into question the Vatican reform itself: The papal envoy who ran the Legion starting in 2010 learned about the case nearly a decade ago and refused to punish or even investigate the priest or the superiors who covered up his crimes, many of whom are still in power and ministry today.
The scandal is not the story line the Legion was hoping for as it opened its general chapter Monday in Rome, a weeks-long gathering to choose new leaders and approve policy decisions going forward.
The assembly was supposed to have shown off the Legion embarking fully on its own after 10 years of Vatican-mandated reform. The Holy See imposed structural changes after revelations that the Legion's late founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, sexually abused at least 60 seminarians, fathered at least three children and built a secretive, cult-like order to cater to his whims and hide his double life.
The Cancun scandal, though, has exposed that the Vatican reform failed to address one key area: to punish known historic abusers and the people who covered for them, and change the culture of cover-up that enabled the crimes.
From the outset, the late papal envoy who ran the Legion, Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, refused to hold complicit Legion superiors accountable or investigate past abusers.
“De Paolis said there would be no witch hunt, explicitly, and the consequence is that abuse and its cover-up have remained unpunished,” said the Rev. Christian Borgogno, a former Legion priest who co-founded the “Legioleaks” Facebook group where Salazar first went public in May. Borgogno said De Paolis' decision to leave in place Legion superiors, many of whom were close to Maciel, “made reform impossible.”
“The only way out was to foster charismatic leaders, and they were even repressed,” he told the AP. “That's the main reason why many of us left.”
Following the AP story, the Legion announced on Monday it would conduct an investigation with the Vatican into the cover-up of the case, and vowed all superiors involved would cooperate.
Salazar, whose story has made headlines in Mexico, wants more: “What I want is for the pope to get radicalized," she said. “There's only one position, to be on the side of the violated children," not a religious order that has among its priests “villains, delinquents, rapists, accomplices and victimizers."
“The Legion of Christ has no reason to exist," she said, echoing calls from even within the church that the Vatican should have suppressed the order 10 years ago. “It's like taking apart a cartel; you have to remove the ringleaders and dismantle it."
Legion spokesman the Rev. Aaron Smith argued that the Legion's leadership had indeed changed over the past decade, noting that 11 priests are participating in the 2020 general chapter for the first time, and that most of the 66 participants are new to the assembly since the Vatican reform began. More than a dozen others, however, belong to Maciel's old guard.
Smith said the power structure of the Maciel era had been dismantled, with more decentralized authority and systems of checks and balances put in place.
“It would be practically impossible today to have actions like the ones which occurred during Maciel's tenure to go undetected,” he said in emailed responses to questions, after declining an on-camera interview.
The scandal has struck the Legion at its core - Mexico - and cast a discrediting light where it hurts most: the Legion's prestigious private schools, which cater to Mexico's elite and are the order's main source of income. Former Legion priests say the scandal is a devastating blow that they long warned about, since a loss of credibility among wealthy Mexicans would deprive the Legion of its key base.
Already, the Mexican bishops conference has ended its silence about the Legion to denounce the newly revealed abuse and the Legion's failure to provide “a specific act of justice or reparation for the victims” even after it acknowledged the crimes, vowed more transparency and pointed to its child protection policies in place now.