A religious order that’s become a leading symbol of the sexual abuse scandals in Catholicism today expressed “deep sorrow” for abuse and sexual misconduct committed by its once-powerful founder, and also announced the election of new leadership intended to steer the order on a reform path.
The apology by the embattled Legionaries of Christ comes one day after the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a scathing report on the Vatican’s response to the abuse scandals, at one point expressing specific concern about the recruiting practices of the Legionaries.
Founded by the late Mexican Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado in 1941, the Legionaries of Christ and their lay arm, the Regnum Christi movement, became a powerful force in the Catholic Church during the Pope John Paul II years, enjoying the favor of the late pope and support from influential prelates around the world.
In 2006, however, Maciel was sentenced to a life of prayer and penance by Pope Benedict XVI following accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse, which included relationships with two women and fathering up to six children, as well as abuse of young members of the order and, allegedly, two of his own children.
The Legionaries officially acknowledged the truth of the charges against Maciel in 2009, after more than a decade of denials.
In the wake of that admission, some Legionaries defected from the order while others left amid their own scandals. Some critics called for the Legionaries to be disbanded, but Benedict XVI decided instead in 2010 to impose a personal delegate to lead a reform, a policy confirmed by Pope Francis.
In a Feb. 6 statement, a group of Legionaries currently meeting in Rome to elect new leadership and to adopt new internal rules for the order apologized not only for Maciel’s crimes but also for what they called the order’s “long institutional silence.”
“We want to express our deep sorrow for [Maciel’s] abuse of minor seminarians and immoral acts with men and women who were adults,” the statement said. It came from the order’s general chapter, a representative assembly of members from around the world.
“We are grieved that many victims and other affected persons have waited so long in vain for an apology and an act of reconciliation,” the statement said. “Today, we would like to issue that apology as we express our solidarity with these persons.”
The statement said the Legionaries are on “a journey of conversion and renewal” that “has advanced, but has not yet ended.”
The man elected by the Legionaries to take over is a 61-year-old Mexican priest named Fr. Eduardo Robles Gil Orvañanos, who currently serves as the order’s top official in Mexico.
In the same election, the Legionaries tapped German Fr. Sylvester Heerman, who had been acting general director during the period of papal supervision, and Spanish Fr. Jesús Villagrasa, since August 2013 the rector of the order’s Regina Apostolorum University in Rome, as members of its governing council.
Two other members of that body, a Spanish pastor in Rome named Fr. Juan José Arrieta and Spanish academic Fr. Juan Sabadell, were appointed directly by Pope Francis.
Observers describe Robles as a reconciler able to appeal both to the most aggressively reform-minded Legionaries and those less inclined to change.
“He’s shown that he’s able to relate to Legionaries across the spectrum,” said Fr. John Bartunek, an American Legionary taking part in the Rome meeting, “from those who are confident in the way we’re going to those who have a lot more concerns.”
The election took place Jan. 20, but the Legionaries delayed announcing the results pending approval from Pope Francis.
Today the Legionaries include three bishops, 953 priests and almost 2,000 seminarians worldwide, while its affiliated Regnum Christi movement claims a following of 70,000 in 30 countries.
Critics have voiced skepticism that the new team will produce real change.
In a piece published Jan. 23 by the National Catholic Reporter, Juan Vaca, one of Maciel’s original accusers who says his abuse began at age 12, dismissed the Rome meeting as “a damage control operation.”
“The election of new superiors and promulgation of a new constitution won’t change the internalized corruption,” said Vaca, now a psychology professor in New York.
John L. Allen Jr., the former Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, is an associate editor of the Boston Globe, covering global Catholicism. He can be reached at John.Allen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@JohnLAllenJr