June 27, 2008

On Sex Abuse: The Pope, the Bishop and the Mexican Priest

By Mark R. Day

If Pope John Paul II fails to get on the fast track to sainthood, it could have something to do with how he handled sex abuse charges against one of Mexico’s most influential priests: the late Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionnaires of Christ.

At least that’s the opinion of retired Bishop Geoffrey Robinson of Sydney, Australia, who spoke to an overflow crowd recently at the University of California at San Diego. Robinson’s talk drew considerable media attention since three local Catholic prelates forbade him from speaking in their dioceses: Bishops Robert Brom of San Diego, Tod Brown of Orange, and Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles.

Left to right: Bishop Geoffrey Robins, Pope John Paul II, and Father Marcial Maciel Degollado.

Asked why these and other bishops interdicted him, Robinson shrugged his shoulders and said, “You’ll have to ask them.” But a sharper response came from a nearby panelist: “He asks too many questions,” piped in Dominican Father Thomas Doyle, a world renowned canon lawyer who has written extensively about the church’s mishandling of sexual abuse allegations against the clergy.

Robinson, who headed an Australian bishops’ commission on clerical sexual abuse from 1994-2003, visited San Diego on a world tour to promote his book, “Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church.” In it Robinson accuses church authorities, including two popes, of managing the clerical sex abuse problem rather than confronting it honestly.

He describes Pope John Paul II’s non-response in the matter of Father Maciel Degollado, head of the traditionalist Legionnaires of Christ, as “a failure of moral leadership on a massive scale.” The late pontiff had access to extensive documentation that Maciel Degollado had sexually abused 30 seminarians from the 1940’s to the 1970s, mostly in Spain and Italy. Some believe the true figure to be much higher.

But John Paul II, a close friend of Maciel Degollado, remained silent. The latter stood at the pope’s right hand during three papal visits to Mexico. Later, John Paul referred to him as “an efficacious guide to youth” and he heaped praise on Maciel Degollado on the 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood in 2004.

After John Paul II’s death, a Vatican investigation resulted in Maciel Degollado’s suspension in 2006 as superior general of the Legionnaires of Christ and a ban on performing his priestly duties. Some of his alleged victims believed he should have been laicized, but leading Catholic conservatives, including William Donahue of the conservative Catholic League, still maintain his innocence.

Among the charges against Maciel Degollado was the testimony from alleged victims that he absolved the sexual sins he committed with them. According to canon law, this is a crime punishable by automatic excommunication (Canon 977).

Maciel Degollado, 85, died at a retirement center in Houston, Texas in January, 2008 and was buried in his native town of Cotija, Michoacan. He left behind a thriving religious order with universities, seminaries and charitable institutions with annual budget of $645 million.

Much of the documentation on Father Maciel Degollado’s case can be found in the book, “Vows of Silence,” by investigative reporters Jason Berry and Gerald Renner. They point out that in addition to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Maciel Degollado demanded that his followers take a vow of silence, to never speak ill of him or their superiors. Jason Berry has just released a new documentary film, also called “Vows of Silence.”

In his own book, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson takes careful aim at this culture of silence and secrecy in the Catholic Church as well as the absolute authority concentrated in the hands of one person: the pope. He sees the need for the Roman Curia, the church’s government, to place checks and balances on papal power, and to be accountable to average Catholics in the pews.

What Bishop Robinson says is nothing new, since these issues were debated 40 years ago at the Second Vatican Council. But instead of falling back on church teachings, Robinson asks some nagging questions: Why can’t the celibacy of priests be re-examined? Does it not lead to misogyny, loneliness and unhealthy living conditions conducive to abuse?

And why is there so much emphasis in the church’s on sexual offenses against God, rather than offenses against other human beings, especially children?

Robinson regrets that the Catholic Church is divided between pro-claimers of certainties and seekers of truth. “Many people feel marginalized in a church that has given them meaning and direction for their lives. I am writing this book for them—to tell them that there is a church for them, fully in accord with the mind of Jesus.”

In his talk at UCSD, Bishop Robinson recalled the Pope John Paul II’s funeral at St. Peter Basilica on April 8, 2005. At that event, large numbers of people shouted “Santo Subito!” (Make him a saint, now!)

But Robinson added a cautionary note. “If sainthood for John Paul II is placed on the fast track, those in charge should take note of the cases of priestly sexual abuse he ignored, especially that of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado.”

Mark Day can be reached at: mday45@sbcglobal.net

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