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"Vows of Silence” findsthe same system of secrecy and protection that pervaded the American scandalsin evidence in the Vatican. Itchronicles the way in which top church officials squelched an investigationinto accusations of sex abuse by the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, theinfluential founder of the Legionaries of Christ. . . ."—Newsday
"No intelligenceorganization is as wrapped in secrecy as the hierarchy of the Roman CatholicChurch, and nothing inspires silence in the Vatican more than scandal involvingpriests and sex. The story that unfoldsin Vows of Silence is carefullydocumented by two veteran reporters—both Catholics—who penetrated the defensesof the Vatican to give us a powerful account of failures about which churchauthorities never wanted anyone to now."—Thomas Powers, author of Intelligence Wars: American Secret Historyfrom Hitler to Al Queda
“Berry and Renner properly trace the basic cause of thesexual abuse crisis to the church’s historic obsession—at the very highestlevels—with secrecy. The propensity tostonewall, cover-up and deceive ‘for the good of the church’ seems irresistibleeven in an age in which, as the Lord said, that which is whispered in theclosets is proclaimed from the housetop.Readers will find it a fascinating account.”—Father Andrew Greeley
The story Juan Vaca told was baroque and chilling, but he wanted Bishop John Raymond McGann to understand why he had come to the diocese of Rockville Centre, Long Island. It was April of 1976. Father Vaca, thirty-nine, had dark hair flecked with silver, a fair brown face, and the discerning bishop could perhaps see the melancholy in his eyes and the sadness in his demeanor. In later years Vaca would study psychology to, as he said, "determine where sickness ends and evil begins."
Vaca had joined the Long Island diocese just as McGann's predecessor was retiring. Men from the religious orders, like Jesuits or Franciscans, often serve in dioceses, but few asked to officially change status from religious to diocesan clergy. Father Vaca had impeccable credentials. In Orange, Connecticut, he had served five years as the U.S. director of the Legionaries of Christ, a religious order with headquarters in Rome.
The Legion was founded in Mexico in 1941 by Marcial Maciel Degollado. Under Father Maciel, the Legionaries built a network of schools and universities in Mexico, and branched out with prep schools and seminaries in Spain, Latin America, Ireland, and now America. With the Legion's growth, Maciel's stature rose in the eyes of the Roman Curia. By 2003 the Legion would claim eleven universities and over 150 prep schools worldwide.
Recruited by Maciel as a ten-year-old in Mexico, Vaca had grown up in the Legion, studying at the order's seminaries in Europe. Vaca told Bishop McGann that Maciel began sexually abusing him when he was twelve. He said that Nuestro Padre -- Our Father, as Legionaries call the founder general -- had used him in a perverse sexual relationship until Vaca was twenty-five. Maciel ran the Legion like a dictator, according to Vaca, and had dominated him by cutting him off from his family. Bishop McGann took it all in. Then he asked a classically American question: Didn't anybody blow the whistle?
Not that I know of, replied Vaca.
McGann's diocese encompassed Suffolk and Nassau Counties. He relied upon the generosity of Irish, Italian, and Hispanic descendants of an immigrant church, many of whom commuted into Manhattan jobs their forebears barely imagined. Nearly a third of the Fortune 500 CEOs were Roman Catholic. McGann was of that generation of bishops who were builders, broadening the infrastructure of parishes, schools, colleges, and services that lifted Catholics from the margins of society to prosperity and power.
Sexual misconduct of priests was not a media topic in those days. Within the clerical world, stories occasionally circulated of priests having affairs with women, or even men. Priests were human, not without sin. In the eyes of millions of Catholics, the church nevertheless stood for moral rectitude. Father Vaca's charges went far beyond "sin." McGann had been appointed a bishop by Pope Paul VI and answered to him. McGann's priest was alleging severe moral crimes by the head of an international order. The Holy Father must be informed about this. Father Vaca had asked his bishop for help.
McGann was deceased when a Long Island grand jury made headlines in 2002 with a voluminous report that condemned the Rockville Centre diocese for a systemic pattern of concealing priests who molested children and lying to the families of those abused. In the case of Father Vaca, a bishop tried to do the right thing.
McGann told the Mexican cleric he would report Maciel to the Vatican. Vaca was skeptical; he thought Maciel had influence in the Curia to block an investigation. McGann insisted that they report through correct channels; he would write to the papal delegate in Washington, D.C. But a document of such gravity must be specific: Vaca had to take that next step. Over the summer Vaca settled into parish work in the town of Baldwin. On October 20, 1976, he sat down in St. Christopher's Rectory and wrote a twelve-page, single-spaced letter to Maciel. After thanking Maciel for his release from the Legion, Vaca got blunt:
For me, Father, the disgrace and moral torture of my life began on that night of December 1949. Using the excuse that you were in pain, you ordered me to remain in your bed. I was not yet thirteen years old; you knew that God had kept me intact until then, pure, without ever having seriously stained the innocence of my infancy, when you, on that night, in the midst of my terrible confusion and anguish, ripped the masculine virginity from me. I had arrived at the Legion in my childhood, with no sexual experience of any kind....It was you who initiated the aberrant and sacrilegious abuse that night; the abuse that would last for thirteen painful years.
Vaca's cri de coeur is a riveting document, even amidst the recent tide of legal actions against priests and the media's coverage of the double lives that too many clerics have led. Vaca identified twenty men with Mexican or Spanish surnames, their place of residence in parentheses. "All of them, good and gifted young boys...personally told me that you committed the same sexual abuses against them, whose names I place before God as a Witness."
Vaca also impugned Regnum Christi, an organization the Legion had fostered to inspire laypeople as evangelists for the kingdom of Christ on earth. Vaca scored "the RC movement itself, with their procedures of secretism, absolutism and brainwashing systems, following the methods of secret societies rather than the open and simple evangelic methods...[and] through the use of subtle arrogance and vanity, [deluding members] into believing that they are the preferred beings and that they have been chosen by God." Vaca had a sister who as a "consecrated woman" had taken vows in Regnum Christi back in Mexico; he demanded that Maciel send her back to their family. Vaca wanted to be left alone to rebuild his life. Finally, "for the good of the Church," he told Maciel, "Renounce your position."
Vaca never got a reply from Maciel.
A dispassionate analysis of the letter holds three possibilities. The first is that Vaca was unstable and fabricated a defamatory picture of Maciel. The second is that Maciel was guilty and had no reason to risk self-incrimination with an answer. The third possibility -- which presumably crossed Bishop McGann's mind -- is that Vaca was substantially telling the truth, though perhaps not every single allegation, like brainwashing, could be proven.
Under the Code of Canon Law, McGann had a responsibility to act on the letter, or dismiss it, based on his judgment of Vaca's character and credibility. Of the twenty victims Vaca listed, one was a priest in the same Long Island diocese. The Reverend Félix Alarcón, then forty-three, had grown up in Spain and joined the Legion in early adolescence. Alarcón had opened the Legion of Christ center in Connecticut in 1965 and left the following year to join the Rockville Centre diocese. "I would have taken this to my grave," Father Alarcón said later, "but when my bishop asked me to verify what Vaca said, I was in the fray." Maciel, he stated, had sexually abused him often, as a seminarian. McGann consulted with his canon lawyer, the Reverend John A. Alesandro. The canonist prepared a dossier that included a statement from Alarcón to buttress Vaca's damning letter to Maciel. Father Alesandro sent the package to the papal delegate in Washington. In vouching for the two ex-Legionaries, McGann and Alesandro were inviting a Vatican investigation into a man with an established base in the ecclesiastical power structure in Rome.
The result was -- nothing. No Vatican official requested more information. The allegation that the founder of an international religious order was a pederast, and that his organization used brainwashing, met a cool Roman silence.
Two years later, in August of 1978, Vaca flew to Mexico to be with his family as his father was dying of cancer. His sister, still in Regnum Christi, resisted his pleas to leave the group. But Vaca was in a deeper crisis. He had fallen in love with a woman and felt guilty for remaining a priest. On return to Long Island he told Bishop McGann and asked to be laicized -- to be dispensed from the obligations of the priesthood. Laicization required sending a petition to Rome. As part of his reason for leaving, Vaca again returned to the sexual abuse by Maciel.
Taking Vaca's troubled background into account, the bishop suggested he take a leave of absence from ministry to sort out his life. McGann also asked Vaca to see a psychiatrist. Several months into the sessions, Vaca disentangled himself from the relationship and returned to ministry. He also renewed his quest to see Maciel removed. Once again, the canonist Alesandro sent a dossier to the Holy See's apostolic delegate in Washington, D.C. On October 16, 1978, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the archbishop of Krakow, was elected pope and took the name John Paul II. The Sacred Congregation for Religious at the Vatican sent a receipt of the complaint. In 1997, when Gerald Renner asked Monsignor Alesandro why nothing happened, he spoke with reluctance: "All I can say is that there are different levels where people are informed about this. It was our duty to get this stuff into the right hands. I don't know why it was not acted on....It's a substantive allegation that should have been acted on."
"It's amazing," reflected Father Alarcón. "There are big people in Rome who are avoiding this."
Juan Vaca left the priesthood after psychotherapy and more struggle with celibacy. On August 31, 1989, he married in a civil ceremony. On October 28, 1989, Vaca wrote a seven-page letter to Pope John Paul II requesting dispensation from his vows. Although he no longer functioned as a priest, Vaca and his wife wanted their marriage blessed by the church. For a former priest or bishop, that requires the pope's approval of laicization.
Monsignor Alesandro again sent a Vaca document to the apostolic embassy in Washington. Again he received confirmation of its receipt by Rome. Vaca wrote as if speaking personally to John Paul II, reflecting on his life, his failings, his marriage. He wrote of "being poorly trained" for the priesthood "because of the serious traumas I suffered for years for being sexually and psychologically abused by the Superior General and Founder, Marcial Maciel...in the same way I soon realized he was doing to other seminarians."
Four years later Vaca received the dispensation, one of thousands bearing the papal signature. He never heard a word about Maciel or the allegations. In 1997, in response to our questions for a report, Maciel denied the allegations, and continues to.
Why did Pope John Paul II protect Maciel?
The Vatican is under no obligation to assist investigative journalists. In the seven years since we first contacted the office of the papal spokesman, JoaquÍn Navarro-Valls, for comment on accusations by nine ex-Legion members that Maciel had abused them, the Vatican refused comment. No Vatican official ever told us Maciel was innocent. There was simply no answer to the accusations in media reports. The charges that Vaca and others filed against Maciel in a Vatican court of canon law in 1998 were shelved: no decision. Instead, Pope John Paul in 2001 praised Maciel at a sixtieth anniversary celebration of the Legion's founding. That symbolic acquittal from a pope who championed human rights under dictatorships is a numbing message on the state of justice in the church.
Our first report on Maciel, in the February 23, 1997, Hartford Courant, drew upon the accounts of Vaca, Alarcón, and seven other former Legionaries. Maciel refused to be interviewed. The Legion of Christ hired a blue-chip Washington law firm to try to kill the report. The Legion uses its newspapers, publicists, and apologists on its Web site to portray Maciel as a victim falsely accused. His supporters include some of the wealthiest citizens of Spain and Latin America, many of whose children attend or have studied at Legion schools or colleges. Americans who champion the Legion include George Weigel, a biographer of Pope John Paul II, and William J. Bennett, the author and lecturer on moral values. Maciel's defenders include the Reverend Richard John Neuhaus, the editor of the journal First Things; William Donohue, the director of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights; Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand professor of law at Harvard; and Deal Hudson, the editor of Crisis magazine.
Most Catholics in the English-speaking world know nothing of Father Maciel, the strange history of Regnum Christi, or the Legion's methods of psychological coercion. In America, Legion schools have left a trail of litigation and embittered former followers, even as the order lays plans for universities in Sacramento, California, and Westchester County, New York. In Latin America and Spain the Legionaries are a major religious movement, and in Mexico a national institution.
How do the Vatican courts treat accusations of great moral crimes by a priest close to the pope? How has the Vatican responded to the larger sexual crisis in the priesthood? These questions bear not just on Maciel and the response of many bishops to child molesters, but on eroding assumptions about clerical life. The Reverend Donald B. Cozzens, a former seminary rector, has written that the priesthood "is, or is becoming, a gay profession" -- echoing an issue raised in 1992 by Jason Berry in Lead Us Not into Temptation.
Of twenty-one hundred priests identified in U.S. legal proceedings since the 1970s, the overwhelming majority preyed on teenage boys, according to Dallas attorney Sylvia Demarest, who has kept an extensive database. Therapists at a handful of institutions that specialize in treating such priests asked the bishops to fund a study that would assess the clinical findings. "The bishops voted it down," stated Dr. Leslie Lothstein, a clinical psychologist at the Institute of Living, a facility in Hartford, Connecticut, with a history of treating sex offenders. "The study people in the church don't want is comparing deviant sexual behavior among Protestant, Jewish and Catholic clergy. We've seen over 200 priests involved with teens or children....Of about fifty ministers of other denominations I've counseled, the vast majority have been involved with adults -- women."
In June 2002, three years after Lothstein's remark, the American bishops appointed a National Review Board to gather data on clergy sex offenders in the dioceses. That study was under way as we completed this book. The bishops' denial of sexual crimes within the ranks was an unintended consequence of the celibacy law. That is not to say that celibacy causes men to abuse children, any more than marriage can be blamed for incest. Sexual behavior is rooted in personality development. The gay priest culture that arose in the last generation was another by-product of celibacy as cornerstone of a governing system. How did Pope John Paul II react to these changes tearing at the central nervous system of the church? We pose this question as products of Catholic families and schooling, with benevolent memories of priests and nuns as mentors, and priests we count as friends. Neither of us was abused, sexually or otherwise.
The most striking impact of the crisis has been in Ireland, the most culturally Catholic country on the globe, where the seminaries are now nearly barren. Studies show a deep Irish disaffection, not with faith but with the dishonesty and control mechanisms of church officialdom. That disillusion spread in the 1990s as scandals beset North America, Australia, and Western Europe, hitting a critical mass in 2002 with a media chain reaction to the Boston Globe investigations. What happened before the pope summoned the American cardinals to Rome for the extraordinary meeting in April 2002? To answer that question we tracked the geography of the crisis and how lines of responsibility flowed back to Rome.
John Paul's failure on this issue stems from several factors we explore. One factor is a Vatican view of the scandal as a product of uncontrollable American courts and an anti-Catholic media. While there is certainly a pagan element in our entertainment media and a tawdry turn in news coverage toward tabloid obsessions, American reporting followed legal events. In contrast, Italy's legal system does not have the sweeping discovery powers of countries with a base in English common law, and the Italian media had far fewer civil cases to draw upon.
In Father Maciel, we confront a papal cover-up. His career is a case study in disinformation -- distorting truth to gain power and fabricating a virtuous image out of pathological behavior; but the Vatican assisted this process for years by its failure to investigate serious charges. Maciel, who turned eighty-three on March 20, 2003, may be the most successful fund-raiser of the twentieth-century Catholic Church; he was very much in control of the Legion as this book went to press. Maciel's movement uses schools as a vehicle to make money and gain power within the church. The Legion claims to have five hundred priests and twenty-five hundred seminarians in twenty countries, and "tens of thousands" of laypeople as well as diocesan priests and deacons in Regnum Christi. While we do not doubt the spiritual integrity of many of those people, the evidence clearly suggests that the Legion is a Roman Catholic sect, built on a cult of personality that is centered on its founder. Maciel has fostered a militant spirituality by emulating fascistic principles he admired in the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. More disturbing, the Legionaries use psychologically coercive techniques common to cults.
The church considers the Legion a religious order. Orders that are centuries old, like the Franciscans and the Jesuits, take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Legionaries of Christ take two extra "private" vows: never to speak ill of Maciel or their superiors, and to report on those who do; and never to aspire to leadership positions. Those vows reward spying as an expression of faith. As we excavated the history of Maciel and his organization, sexual behavior in clerical culture became an international news story and one of the great institutional tragedies of our time.
Pope John Paul II, his bishops, and his advisers in the Roman Curia could have arrested the crisis years ago had they heeded the warnings of a prophet in their midst. The Reverend Thomas P. Doyle, a Dominican priest, worked as canon lawyer in the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s. No individual has played a more catalytic role in seeking justice than Father Doyle.
As a chaplain and lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, Father Doyle's career provides a prism on history. His journey -- as a young seminarian during the early 1960s; as a consummate insider in the 1980s; and then as an exile -- and a pariah -- straddles a time in which the great promise of reforms at the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s met a backlash under the papacy of John Paul II. As the Vatican tried to muzzle theologians making honest inquiry into church teaching, a sexual underground in clerical life, concealed by ecclesiastical officials, made a mockery of enforced orthodoxy. Over a period of twenty years, Tom Doyle was there -- writing reports, warning bishops, briefing cardinals, standing up for values of justice, then casting his lot with victims and their attorneys, helping journalists, and, in the process, rewriting the meaning of his life. He is a Catholic embodiment of the rebel, an ethos expressed by Albert Camus: "A man who says no: but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation....Rebellion cannot exist without the feeling that somewhere, in some way, you are justified." The rebel "says yes and no at the same time. He affirms that there are limits and also that he suspects -- and wishes to preserve -- the existence of certain things beyond those limits."
In 2002, while stationed at a military base in Ramstein, Germany, Doyle was besieged by reporters and TV producers from many countries as clergy sex abuse cases became an international media story. His was a rare voice of conscience, a priest speaking truth to the powers of his church.
Vows of Silence explores the Vatican's cover-up through the lives of two priests, Doyle and Maciel: one demanding justice, the other a fortress of injustice. In chronicling the major events surrounding these men, we also train a lens on the persecution of theologians and church thinkers under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. This latter-day witch hunt is of a piece with John Paul's refusal to confront the great crisis of the priesthood by allowing free discussion of alternatives to a male celibate clergy.
The sexual abuse of young people by clergy is not a new phenomenon in Rome. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux advised Pope Eugenius III, his fellow Cistercian monk and former pupil, how to behave after his election in the year 1145: "You cannot be the last person to know about disorder in your house. Raise your hand to the guilty, since a lack of punishment breeds recklessness that opens the door to all kinds of excess. Your brothers, the cardinals, must learn by your example not to keep young, long-haired boys and seductive men in their midst." We do not share the ideological view of those who argue that the clergy crisis has been caused by "the homosexual network." But neither do we share the mentality of political correctness that causes some commentators in the media and academe to shun any criticism of any dimension of gay culture whatsoever. In examining the sexual crisis of a celibate governing system, we try to heed the caution of Pascal, the French philosopher, who said that virtue is displayed not "by going to one extreme, but in touching both at once, and filling all the intervening space."
Readers not familiar with the hierarchy of the church may find the charts at the beginning of the book and the glossary at the end useful references.
Copyright © 2004 by Jason Berry and Gerald Renner
Part One: The Odyssey of Thomas Doyle
CHAPTER 1: To Be a Priest
CHAPTER 2: Evidence of Things Unsaid
CHAPTER 3: Exile and Renewal
CHAPTER 4: A Time of Solidarity
CHAPTER 5: Pope John Paul II Breaks His Silence
CHAPTER 6: Memories of the Cardinal
Part Two: The Rise of the Legion of Christ
CHAPTER 7: Evangelism by Stealth
CHAPTER 8: Myth of the Founder
CHAPTER 9: The War Against Internal Enemies
CHAPTER 10: The Legion's Defense of Father Maciel
CHAPTER 11: In the Vatican Courts
Part Three: Witnesses for the People of God
CHAPTER 12: Religious Duress
CHAPTER 13: Orthodoxy and Deception
CHAPTER 14: The Legion's American Battles
CHAPTER 15: A Vatican of Naked Truths
GLOSSARY OF CHURCH TERMS
Posted May 16, 2011
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Posted March 20, 2011
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