VATICAN CITY – The Legion of Christ religious order, already discredited for concealing the crimes of its pedophile founder, suffered another blow to its credibility Tuesday after its superior admitted he knew in 2005 that his most prominent priest had fathered a child, yet allowed him to keep teaching and preaching about morality.
The admission by the Rev. Alvaro Corcuera is likely to enrage members of the Legion and its lay branch who have endured years of apologies, hypocrisy and explanations for the crimes of the Catholic order's founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, who sexually abused his seminarians and fathered three children with two women.
The Rev. Thomas Williams, the public face of the Legion in America, admitted last week that he had violated his vow of celibacy and fathered a child several years ago, going public with a statement after The Associated Press presented the Legion with the accusation.
On Tuesday, Corcuera wrote a letter to all Legion members admitting that he had heard rumors of the child before he became superior in 2005, but took Williams' word that they were false. Williams is a well-known U.S. television personality, author and moral theologian.
Corcuera said that after becoming superior in 2005, he confirmed Williams' paternity and asked him to withdraw from public ministry. Yet he did nothing to prevent him from teaching morality to seminarians or preaching about ethics on television, in his many speaking engagements or in his 14 books, including "Knowing Right from Wrong: A Christian Guide to Conscience."
Williams, for example, remained dean of the theology department at the Legion's university in Rome until 2007 — two years after Corcuera knew about the child. As chancellor of the university, Corcuera could have ousted him, yet Williams taught theology up until this past February when he was finally removed.
Corcuera said he placed restrictions on Williams' ministry in 2010, but as recently as last month Williams was the keynote speaker at a Legion-affiliated women's conference in the U.S. state of Rhode Island and was scheduled to speak at another conference in October in Michigan.
In his letter Tuesday, Corcuera admitted that he "was not diligent in setting proper restrictions and enforcing them."
In a new statement Tuesday, Williams said he had resisted Corcuera's encouragement to keep a low profile, saying he had hoped to move beyond the child — "this sin in my past" — to do good work for the church.
"I foolishly thought that I had left this sin in my past, and that I could make up for some of the wrong I had done by doing the greatest good possible with the gifts God has given me," Williams wrote in an email to Legion members that was obtained by the AP. "This was an error in judgment, and yet another thing I must ask your forgiveness for."
Williams, who is said by friends to be suffering from cancer, hasn't identified the mother or said whether he is supporting the child or taking part in the child's upbringing. The Legion has said the child is being cared for. Williams has said he is taking a year off to ponder his commitment to the priesthood.
For years, the Legion denied allegations that Maciel abused his seminarians and tried to publicly discredit those who went public with their accusations in 1997. The telegenic Williams was one of Maciel's prime defenders.
After the Legion came clean about Maciel's double life in 2009, many had forgiven the leadership for its deception, thinking it was an isolated case. But Tuesday's revelations that Corcuera knew of Williams' child indicated otherwise — that covering up for the sins and crimes of errant priests was part of the Legion's problematic culture of silence and obedience.
"I cannot foresee what this means to the future of the congregation, for their existence hinges on political expediency rather that the greater moral good," Genevieve Kineke, who runs a blog about the Legion aimed at helping those who leave, said in an email. "It does seem to eliminate any remaining vestiges of real authority for Fr. Corcuera, and makes authentic reform all the harder."
A U.S. victims' group, Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests, called for Pope Benedict XVI to oust Corcuera, saying if the pope wants "a more holy and pure and safe church, he can't keep ignoring or rewarding serious wrongdoing."
Maciel, who founded the Legion in 1941 in Mexico, died in 2008.
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 since 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.
In 2010, the Vatican took over the Legion after determining that the order itself had been contaminated by Maciel's influence and needed to be "purified" through a process of reform that is under way. The Vatican hasn't responded to the latest revelations, but last week issued a statement to the AP saying it still had faith in the pope's delegate running the order, while acknowledging the reform was long and complex precisely because it has to be thorough.
Following an AP investigation, the Legion on May 11 admitted that seven priests were under Vatican investigation for allegedly sexually abusing minors and other sacramental violations. Five of the seven concern sex abuse accusations, the Legion clarified Tuesday. Two concern violations believed to involve using confession or spiritual direction to have inappropriate sexual relations with women.
In his letter Tuesday, Corcuera announced that the Legion was going to review all past cases of allegations of sexual abuse to ensure that they were handled properly. Victims of Legion priests and critics of the order have said there are many more cases of abusers which have been well-known to the leadership but covered up for decades.
"Are there other cases waiting to be discovered, more scandals ready to attack your faith and trust? I can never say for sure," Corcuera wrote. "I can, however, tell you that we are following the lead of Pope Benedict XVI in dealing with abuse and sexual misconduct in the Legion."
In addition to the seven cases being investigated by the Vatican, Corcuera also revealed that a Legion priest is currently under criminal investigation in the U.S. for alleged sex abuse and that three others had been cleared. Three former Legion priests have been referred to civil authorities, he said.
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