New questions about Legionaries of Christ

NEW ORLEANS — On Dec. 5, 1994, seven daily newspapers in Mexico City ran half-page ads with a photograph of the Legionaries of Christ founder, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, kissing the ring of Pope John Paul II. An open letter from the pope, celebrating Maciel's 50th anniversary as a priest, called him "an efficacious guide to youth."

On Tuesday in Mexico City, an attorney named Jose Bonilla announced that Maciel had six children. Two daily papers, La Jornada and Milenio reported that Bonilla was taking legal action against Maciel's estate on behalf of three of them, who are now adults. Bonilla is seeking legal recognition for his clients as heirs to Maciel. Only one has been identified.

Norma Hilda Rivas, 23, reportedly born in Mexico, now lives in Madrid "and enjoys a level of affluence such that she does not work [and] lives in a luxury apartment ... acquired by Marcial Maciel with money from the congregation's benefactors," according to La Jornada.

Bonilla's announcement is just the latest action against Maciel, who died in 2008 at the age of 87. In 1941, Maciel founded the religious order the Legionaries of Christ and became the greatest fundraiser of the modern church.

John Paul never wavered in his support of Maciel, even after a 1998 canon law case filed in a Vatican tribunal by eight former Legionaries accused him of abusing them as seminarians. The case gathered dust until 2004, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the final months of John Paul's life ordered an investigation of Maciel. A few months later Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. In 2006, Benedict dismissed Maciel from active ministry, though without specifying why.

In February, the Legion shocked its followers by disclosing that Maciel had fathered a daughter out of wedlock. The Vatican announced a new investigation, this time of the Legion itself. Catholic blogs have raised questions about the daughter, her mother, whether they have financial support from the Legion, how much — and how long — Legion officials knew about them.

In June the Holy See named six bishops from as many countries as "visitators" to gather information from Legion schools, seminaries and colleges in Latin America, North America and Europe.

As the investigation progresses, it seems that one of Maciel's hidden connections has gone public. Rivas's mother was interviewed in an Aug. 9 report in the Madrid webmagazine PeriodistaDigital. "When I met this man I was under aged," Norma Hilda Banos, identified as 48 and a native of Acapulco, said of Maciel. "Neither my daughter nor I knew who this man really was until the very end."

The daughter "was abused by her father, Maciel," PeriodistaDigital quoted Hilda Banos as saying. "She suffers from severe trauma from her childhood and I don't believe she is ever going to get over it."

The site further reports that Maciel left Hilda Banos "two homes in her name in the exclusive Madrid building where she lives and three [other] places, all valued at about 2 million euros."


The report states that mother and daughter receive a generous monthly stipend from the Legion in exchange for their silence, citing Bonilla as a source.

Bonilla won a civil judgment against the Legion several years ago in a suit on behalf of his own child, who was sexually abused by a teacher at the Legion's elite Oxford School in Mexico City, according to Milenio.

As the Holy See presumably awaits the results of the Apostolic Visitation by the investigating prelates — including Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput and Bishop Ricardo Blazques of Balboa, Spain — a larger question concerns the church itself.

How long have Vatican officials known that Maciel had a child, or children? Father Alvaro Corcuero, the Legion director-general chosen by Maciel to succeed him when the founder stepped down in 2004, undoubtedly had access to the Legion's financial records. At what point did he advise Benedict of what he knew?

The decision by which Corcuero began disclosing that Maciel had "a double life" to Legionary members last February clearly was not his alone. The Vatican understandably wanted to put distance between Benedict and the Legionaries. In that sense, the bishops' investigation of the Legion is also providing cover for the pope.

The issue now is not just Maciel's sordid secret life but financial accountability. If the Legion gave material support to one or more children of Maciel, any number of benefactors he cultivated in establishing a religious order with a $650 million budget for schools and colleges in North America, South America and Europe were duped, if not defrauded in a legal sense.

The Legion's legendary fundraising operations drew heavily on videotapes in which Maciel appeared with Pope John Paul II. In one video, John Paul tells a large gathering from the balcony at St. Peter's, "You are all sons and daughters of Father Maciel." 

Jason Berry is coauthor of "Vows of Silence," a book about Maciel, and producer of a documentary about the 2006 Vatican prosecution.