June 27, 2008
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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!)
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
Mark Day can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org