Priest is disciplined after abuse probe

Vatican tells Mexican to refrain from public ministries


ROME -- The Vatican announced yesterday that it was disciplining the Mexican founder of an influential Catholic order after an investigation into decades of allegations that the priest sexually abused boys in his care.

The Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, 86, appears to be the highest-ranking priest to be sanctioned in an abuse case. He received protective support from Pope John Paul II for many years, but Pope Benedict XVI, in his first major decision in the church's sex-abuse scandal, put aside his predecessor's wishes.

Maciel has denied the allegations, and his organization, the Legion of Christ, repeated that position yesterday.

The Vatican said in a statement that Maciel has been instructed to refrain from public ministries and to adopt a "life of prayer and penitence." The statement did not specify whether the charges were true, but experts said the Vatican's decision indicated that church investigators believe at least some of the accusations.

Given his advanced age and frail health, the statement said, Maciel will not be prosecuted under canonical law.

The Vatican said Pope Benedict, who has vowed to rid the church of the "filth" of sexual abuse, approved the sanctions that were determined by Cardinal William Levada, the former archbishop of San Francisco, who is the pope's successor as head of the body that led the inquiry.

Despite persistent rumors about Maciel's behavior for decades, including alleged drug abuse as far back as the mid-1950s, the case against him took years to advance in the labyrinthine legal bureaucracy of the Vatican.

Originally, eight men accused Maciel of sodomizing them when they were students under the priest's supervision in the mid-1940s to the early 1960s. Most of the accusers were Mexican, and some were as young as 10 years old when when the suspected abuse began.

An investigation was suspended by Pope Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in 1999. But Ratzinger reopened the inquiry after church investigators received testimony in late 2004 and early 2005 from at least 20 new accusers who said they had been abused by Maciel well into the 1980s, according to the National Catholic Reporter news agency, which first reported the Vatican's decision regarding Maciel on Thursday.

Advocates for victims of pedophile priests praised the decision and said they had hope Maciel will be banished from the clergy.

"It would have been easy to let this case quietly go unresolved, as so many similar cases have," David Clohessy, national director of the U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in a statement.

"One positive move, however significant, doesn't constitute or guarantee a trend. While it may be tempting to assume this is a sign of progress yet to come, our painful history has taught us to be cautious and to err on the side of prudence."

Some of the original whistleblowers were less pleased, saying the punishment is inadequate, given the harm done, and long overdue.

"This was a minimal punishment ... meager and mediocre ... that does not respond to the magnitude of the denunciations," Alejandro Espinosa, a victim of the suspected abuse who is in his 60s, told La Jornada newspaper in Mexico City.

Saul Barrales, another former student of Maciel's, said the decision at least shows that "we are not crazy or unhinged."

The Legion of Christ is a conservative order founded by Maciel 65 years ago. One of the fastest-growing in the world, it has about 600 priests and 2,500 seminarians in 20 countries.

Its traditionalist bent and fierce loyalty to the papacy earned it admiration from Pope John Paul and other senior church officials. On four of Pope John Paul's trips to Mexico, Maciel was at his side, and the pontiff lavished praise on a priest he called an "efficacious guide to youth."

Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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