Cardinal Sin

By Berry, Jason | Newsweek, March 8, 2013 | Go to article overview
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Cardinal Sin


Berry, Jason, Newsweek


Byline: Jason Berry

Father Maciel and the popes he stained.

Marcial Maciel Degollado, a priest from Mexico with an extravagant name, was the greatest fundraiser for the postwar Catholic Church and equally its greatest criminal.

"A life ... out of moral bounds," is how Pope Benedict XVI described Maciel in a 2010 interview, two years after Maciel's death. A "wasted, twisted life."

And a life that exposed shocking flaws in the Vatican and the papacy. The saga of Father Maciel opens a rare view onto the flow of money in the Roman Curia across the last half century, a time during which his rise to power and late-life crash into scandal stained the campaign for John Paul II's sainthood and became a quagmire for Benedict XVI.

In the late 1940s, Maciel began sexually plundering teenage seminarians in the religious order he founded, the Legion of Christ. He also shuttled between Mexico, Venezuela, and Spain, courting benefactors like a senator with silk between the fingers, portraying his Legionaries as a force of resurgent orthodoxy, himself a fearless foe of communism.

That message had booming resonance in Mexico, a heavily Catholic country seared by memories of lethal anticlerical persecutions set in motion by the Calles regime in the 1930s, a milieu powerfully evoked in Graham Greene's novel The Power and the Glory. Maciel won government support for seminary scholarships in Madrid, after the Spanish Civil War cemented ties between Francisco Franco's dictatorship and the Catholic hierarchy. Wealthy industrialists and patricians from the Spanish-speaking world poured money into Maciel's fledgling order.

The youngest of five boys in a family of nine children, Maciel was born in 1920 into the provincial aristocracy of Cotija de la Paz in south-central Mexico, today a crossroads in the drug wars. The surname derived from his father's Creole French-Spanish ancestry. His father, a rancher with a sugar mill, ridiculed the boy for being a sissy, subjected him to whippings by older brothers, and sent him to work with field hands to shape up as a man. Many years later, he told one of his seminary victims, Juan Vaca, how mule drivers sexually abused him.

On his mother's side, four uncles were bishops. Maciel as a teenager entered a seminary in Mexico, but was dismissed for reasons yet to surface; he joined a seminary run by Jesuits in New Mexico and was again expelled for "misunderstandings," according to his official biography. Had it not been for the quartet of uncles, he never would have been a priest. But pull is pull. Bishop Francisco Arias arranged private lessons and ordained his nephew in 1944. A cameraman filmed Maciel in the moment, the footage used in later years for Legion marketing efforts.

Maciel raised money for lodgings and lessons in Mexico City for the small group of followers he had attracted. In 1946 he arrived in Rome and gave $10,000 to Cardinal Clemente Micara, the vicar of Rome, "a huge sum in a city reeling from the war," a priest with seasoned knowledge of Legion finances told me. Maciel, 26, tall and lean with searchlight eyes, spoke no Italian. But the portly Micara, a former Vatican diplomat, spoke Spanish; he provided an endorsement letter for Maciel's fundraising and an audience with Pope Pius XII.

Legionaries called their leader Nuestro Padre (Our Father). They were taught that their founder was a living saint. They took private vows, swearing never to criticize Maciel or their superiors and to report on anyone who did. The cultlike insular culture Maciel molded would reward spying as an act of faith and shield Nuestro Padre from scrutiny as the youngest victims grew up and left the order, returning to Mexico and years of grappling with his traumatic impact on their lives.

In 1956 at the Legion seminary in Rome, Maciel spun out of control from an addiction to a morphine painkiller. A priest and older seminarian complained to the Vatican, which prompted an investigation that sent Maciel to a hospital briefly and removed him as superior general.

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