VATICAN CITY – The Vatican is investigating seven priests from the troubled Legion of Christ religious order for alleged sexual abuse of minors and another two for other alleged crimes, The Associated Press has learned.
The investigations mark the first known Vatican action against Legion priests for alleged sexual assault following the scandal of the Legion's founder, who was long held up as a model by the Vatican despite credible accusations -- later proven -- that he raped and molested his seminarians.
The Legion, which is now under Vatican receivership, has insisted that the crimes of its late founder, the Rev. Marciel Maciel, were his alone.
But the Vatican investigation of other Legion priests indicates that the same culture of secrecy that Maciel created within the order to cover his crimes enabled other priests to abuse children -- just as clergy of other religious orders and dioceses have done around the world.
In a statement Friday to The Associated Press, the Legion confirmed it had referred seven cases of alleged abuse to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. All but one involves alleged abuse dating from decades ago; one case involves recent events, the Legion said.
A preliminary investigation cleared two other priests accused of abuse, the Legion said.
Two other priests are also under investigation by the Congregation for alleged sacramental violations, believed to involve using spiritual direction to have inappropriate relations with women.
The scandal of Maciel and the Legion ranks as one of the worst of the 20th-century Catholic Church, since he was held up as a model for the faithful by Pope John Paul II. His orthodox order, which has about 900 priests around the world, was praised for attracting both money and vocations to the priesthood.
Documentation from Vatican archives, however, has shown that as early as the 1950s, the Vatican had evidence that he was a drug addict and pedophile.
Only in 2006 did the Vatican sanction Maciel to a lifetime of penance and prayer for his crimes. He died in 2008 and a year later the Legion admitted he had fathered three children with two different women and had abused his seminarians.
The Vatican took over the Legion in 2010 and is pushing through a process of reform.