VATICAN CITY – The troubled Legion of Christ religious order is electing new leadership for the first time since its founder was revealed to have been a pedophile and a fraud. The process starting Wednesday will formally end the Vatican's three-year rehabilitation of the movement, a reform the Legion is touting as a success and critics have dismissed as a sham.
The Legion was once held up as a model by the Vatican, which turned a blind eye to the Rev. Marciel Maciel's misdeeds as the order became one of the fastest-growing congregations in the Catholic Church and brought in millions in donations. After three years of Vatican-imposed reform though, questions still remain as to how the Legion can exist when its founder was a fraud and its core mission remains unclear.
The Legion's hope is that following the monthlong meeting, Pope Francis will approve a new constitution that explains the order's mission, hierarchy and rules and will allow the Legion to move on without any more Vatican oversight. The Legions top superiors and 42 priests elected as representatives — including many close to Maciel — will finalize the constitution and then elect new leadership.
But several former Legion priests have urged the pontiff not fall for the order's "supposed reform," saying the rehabilitation process ignored its core dysfunction: financial duplicity, lack of an authentic religious identity and continued cover-up of the people who facilitated the founder's crimes.
"In the Legion, nothing is as it seems," they wrote Francis last year.
Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, took over the Legion in 2010 after Vatican investigators determined that the congregation needed to be "purified" of the influence of Maciel, who sexually abused his seminarians, fathered three children and created a system of power in the Legion that allowed his crimes to go unchecked.
Former members said the code of silence and obedience that Maciel imposed created a toxic, cult-like environment where communications were screened, dissenters marginalized and members deceived and manipulated. Hundreds of priests, seminarians and lay consecrated members have abandoned the movement in recent years; there are now about 950 priests and a few hundred consecrated members.
Benedict appointed a retiring cardinal, Velasio De Paolis, to oversee reforms and the rewriting of the order's constitutions, leading up to the General Chapter that begins Wednesday. The Legion says many of the problems flagged by the Vatican have been fixed, but that reforms continue.
"The extraordinary chapter will be an important moment in this communal examination of conscience and an occasion to appreciate the blessings received, ask forgiveness for errors committed in the past and learn lessons for the future," the Rev. Sylvester Heereman, the Legion's current head, wrote in a Christmas letter to former Legion priests.
Some former members have been vocal in their concern about the process, convinced that De Paolis' reforms didn't go deep enough and that priests still devoted to Maciel's old ways had blocked reformers from making the changes necessary to turn the order around.
"From the beginning, the reform has been more concerned with saving what remains rather than arriving at the truth of what the Legion is," a few dozen members wrote Francis in June. A top Legion official resigned in November in frustration over the lack of reforms, insisting he couldn't continue without damaging his "priestly vocation and my psychological health."
Critics question whether the order has a solid enough foundation to continue at all, given that its disgraced founder can no longer be a source of inspiration. Maciel had drawn a devoted following of zealous Catholics, though critics say his core aim was to raise money and bring in new priests.
"The Catholic Church has zero tradition of institutes of perfection being founded, directly or even indirectly, by predatory charlatans," the U.S. canonist Edward Peters, a consultant at the Vatican's high court, recently wrote on his blog.
E. Christian Brugger, professor of moral theology at the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado, said religious orders like the Jesuits or the Franciscans allow the faithful to follow Christ in a special way inspired by the order's founder. Maciel's fraud "throws into profound question the genuineness" of that inspiration, or charism, that attracted so many people to the Legion, he said.
The Legion's spokesman, the Rev. Benjamin Clariond, noted that several Vatican officials have said over the years that the Legion is a work of God. But he acknowledged that the charism was one of the "central issues" that will be discussed by the upcoming meeting.
De Paolis, 78, has essentially declared "Mission Accomplished." During his Dec. 14 homily to ordain 31 new priests into the order, De Paolis praised their tenacity, saying they had remained faithful to their vocation in the Legion as other Legion priests left when the going got tough.
Francis has already said De Paolis' term will not be renewed, but it remains to be seen what he will do with the order itself. Any more Vatican intervention would further tarnish the legacy of Pope John Paul II, a top Maciel defender whom Francis will canonize in April.
There's no timeframe for Francis to approve the outcome of the meeting, and he could opt to grant provisional approval. Legion officials expect a decision within a few months.
Many of those voting this week have been implicated in some the Legion's problems.
— One was accused of sexual abuse by a former member. The Legion insisted it couldn't corroborate the claim but restricted his ministry to keep him away from children.
— Another was implicated in U.S. court documents that found the Legion used undue influence to persuade an elderly widow to give $60 million to the order.
— And yet another, the current director general, admitted he knew that the Legion's public face, Thomas Williams, had fathered a child of his own and yet was allowed to continue teaching and preaching morality for years. Williams recently married the daughter of one of Francis' top advisers, the former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon.
A leading moral theologian, German Grisez, in 2009 wrote an open letter to his friends in the Legion, urging them to continue their service to the church but not in the Legion, which he said should be terminated and its members reconstituted into a new religious institute.
In a telephone interview last week, Grisez said he couldn't evaluate if the reform process had essentially accomplished what he had recommended.
"I don't think this is ideal," he said. "It may be that the process has been virtually the re-founding that I thought was necessary. But I don't know that that was the case."
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield