On a roll in the Holy Land, Legion compares Maciel to Magdalene

Legionary Fr. Juan María Solana at the Magdala Center in northern Israel (Newscom/Photoshot/Xinhua/Li Rui)

Legionary Fr. Juan María Solana at the Magdala Center in northern Israel (Newscom/Photoshot/Xinhua/Li Rui)

by Jason Berry

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The scandal-battered Legionaries of Christ, still facing the unresolved consequences of a disgraced founder, may be seeing a turn in their fortunes with the development of the Magdala Center at the Sea of Galilee in the Holy Land. The order is conducting a major fundraising drive to cover the projected $100 million cost.

The complex, with newly discovered ruins of a synagogue Jesus may have visited, will contain an archaeological park, women's institute, media center and a luxury hotel the Legion will own. Eduardo Guerra, the center's assistant director, said that the Legion has raised $40 million from benefactors toward the finished work.

Whether the center can overcome its founder's reputation and the fallout from the prolonged scandal is an open question. While the order is still reeling from revelations that its founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, was a sexual predator, abusing young seminarians and living a double life that included fathering three children by two women from Mexico, he still has his loyalists.

A booklet intended to promote the new center, Magdala: God Really Loves Women, contains material demonstrating Maciel's posthumous hold on certain top-rank Legionaries. The booklet compares Maciel to Mary Magdalene and portrays the Legion founder as harshly judged. In the quotation from the text that follows, the speaker is Fr. Juan María Solana, who heads the Magdala project:

The priest speaks his heart: "Marcial Maciel's initials are also MM, just like Mary Magdalene. She had a problematic past before her deliverance, so there's a parallel. Our world has double standards when it comes to morals. Some people have a formal, public display and then the real life they live behind the scenes.

"But when we accuse someone else and we are quick to stone him, we must remember that we all have problems and defects. With modern communications so out of control, it is easy to kill someone's reputation without even investigating about the truth. We should be quieter and less condemning."

The Legion's expansion in the Holy Land stands out in stark contrast to the "fire sale" of assets in the Americas, as one priest calls it, sparked by the fallout from the line of scandals involving the Legion. The Legion's economic boom in Israel also occurs against the backdrop of ongoing legal problems in the United States.

In Connecticut, the Legion has been sued by Maciel's son and the son's half-brother, alleging that Maciel sexually abused them as teenagers in America.

Separate Rhode Island lawsuits seek to recover millions of dollars from the wills of two elderly Catholics who, relatives allege, were defrauded by Legion fundraising practices that promoted Maciel as a saintly figure.

Solana, director of the Magdala Center project, is a native of Mexico with many years' experience at Legion headquarters in Rome. He appears on the center's website in a video fundraising appeal. The order's lay wing, Regnum Christi, worked closely with Solana and Fr. Eamon Kelly, an Irish Legionary, to cultivate donors for this project.

After Legion superiors' 2009 disclosure that Maciel had children and the order's admission that he had abused seminarians, dozens of priests left the order. The donor base was imperiled. But the Legion was already shifting its fundraising focus to Holy Land pilgrimages, courting donors for the Magdala Center. Solana purchased land there before the discovery of the religious ruins that have now given it a high profile.

In a striking contrast to the $40 million the Legion claims to have invested at Galilee, the order took a $16 million loss on the sale of its Thornwood, N.Y., center, once envisioned as the site of a college campus. The Legion sold the property to Efekta IA Inc., a Boston-based affiliate of EF Academy International Boarding Schools, for $17 million, according to the Westchester County Business Journal.

"The Thornwood property was sold at a fire-sale price. Properties everywhere are being sold, but the Legion is still going ahead with big projects in Israel," Fr. Peter Byrne, a Legionary in Dublin, told NCR. "How can they be expanding?" he asked. Byrne is leaving the order to join the diocesan clergy.

The new venture in Israel is an ambitious undertaking for an order facing so much legal action and in such internal chaos that a Jesuit canon lawyer, Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, was recently appointed as a special adviser to the order. The Legion has yet to receive approval from Pope Francis for reworked constitutions, which were submitted to the pope months ago.

Meanwhile, the downsizing in other parts of the world has been extensive. The Legion has:

  • Sold a 10-acre portion of its 25-acre center in Orange, Conn., the site of the order's original headquarters in America, for $800,000.
  • Closed the University of Sacramento in July 2011 for lack of funds. When the school opened in California in 2005, the order planned for it to become its flagship college in America.
  • Closed Gateway Academy, a prep school outside St. Louis, at the end of the 2011 school year, citing "diminished financial capacity of the Legion of Christ."
  • Closed seminaries in Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Canada, two novitiates in Ireland and another in Spain, because of funding problems and people leaving the Legion and Regnum Christi, according to a March 23, 2014 report in the Mexican daily Milenio.
  • Sold six properties in Spain, according to Milenio, and two schools north of Madrid merged to operate on the same campus.

For a religious order with global reach, the Legion is small. It has 800 priests and about 2,400 seminarians. At its peak, in 2004, the annual operating budget of $650 million covered the network of schools, seminaries and colleges in Latin America, North America and Europe.

Early this year, at the Legion's first general chapter meeting in 10 years, the order elected new leaders and issued a lengthy statement apologizing to Maciel's victims, reflecting on its failures with a pledge of reform.

"Several of us expected that the chapter would put in place objective means of communicating the internal changes -- and what that would mean," Byrne said. "But there are no watchdogs to see if the Legion actually fulfills its roles or promises -- no outside evaluators. The same culture is still present."

The 138-page Magdala: God Really Loves Women seems a case in point. The suggestion that Maciel lost his reputation unfairly, "without even investigating the truth," contradicts Benedict's statement in Light of the World (2010) by journalist Peter Seewald. Benedict alludes to the two-year investigation that culminated in the 2006 dismissal of Maciel from ministry.

"Unfortunately, we addressed these things very slowly and late," said the pope. "Somehow they were concealed very well, and only around the year 2000 did we have any concrete clues."

Benedict said Maciel's life was "out of moral bounds -- an adventurous, wasted, twisted life. On the other hand, we see the dynamism and strength with which he built up the congregation of Legionaries."

That same year, the Vatican said Maciel's life was "devoid of scruples and of genuine religious meaning."

Magdala: God Really Loves Women was prepared in time for the media events the Legion held in advance of Francis' trip to the Holy Land in May. The copyright is credited to Hermana Viljoen, of Pretoria, South Africa. Printed in Jerusalem, the book states: "Overseen by the Legionaries of Christ."

It was at a Nov. 30, 2004, ceremony celebrating Maciel's 60th year in the priesthood that Pope John Paul II gave the Legion administrative control of the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center. The move was pushed by then-Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano. Allegations of pedophilia brought by ex-Legionaries against Maciel had been gathering dust in Ratzinger's office at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1998, but with Sodano's weight behind the proposition, the Jerusalem center was given over to the Legion. In video footage of the 2004 ceremony, Maciel kneels before the ailing pope, the two exchange kisses in an embrace.

"Brokenness, shame and trauma do not happen to women only," explains Magdala, citing "the stories of women who have suffered tremendously because of moral problems." The text continues:

When the facts surrounding Marcial Maciel came into the news, it sent shockwaves throughout the world. Having been the founder the Legionaries of Christ, many looked up to his example and trusted his integrity. "For us he was a holy man, the leader of a big spiritual movement," says Father John [Solana]. "He initiated many dozens of universities, hundreds of schools, hundreds of youth centers, thousands of vocations. ... All of a sudden his reputation collapsed like the twin towers. When you have idealized him for years and he was the model, your spiritual father and suddenly poof, he was nothing. It was extremely painful."

"Many dozens of universities" is inaccurate. The Legion at its height, even if one counts collegiate-level seminaries, had about two dozen.

Sodano was papal nuncio in Chile during the Pinochet regime when he befriended the Legion founder; Maciel was making inroads for prep schools and seminaries. Back in Rome, Sodano became a beneficiary of the Legion's financial gifts; he pulled out the stops in trying to halt Ratzinger from prosecuting Maciel.

As a Vatican property, the Pontifical Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center is a huge asset, with a library, five-star hotel accommodations, conference space and a hospitality school for Arab Christians. The Vatican gave the Legion control for 49 years. All revenues to Notre Dame of Jerusalem go back into operations, Legionary Fr. Benjamin Clariond explained by email from Rome. Solana makes an annual report to the Vatican.

The Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center is a required stop for any papal visit because the Vatican owns it. Benedict stopped there during his visit to Israel. Francis, on his recent whistle-stop visit, met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center. In a separate event, he blessed the tabernacle and altar to be used in the Magdala Center, according to the Magdala Center's website.

The Legion of Christ -- not the Holy See -- is in charge of Magdala Center, Clariond told NCR. "The project includes the archeological park, the spirituality center, a restaurant, and a house for pilgrims [a hotel]. Investment dimension for the whole project would range between 80 and 100 million USD. Donations to the project go strictly to the project."

Clarond said that the hotel would not return profits to investors. Does the Legion own the hotel? "That is the plan," he answered by email. "But the lodging for pilgrims has not been completed yet."

[Jason Berry produced "Vows of Silence," a documentary on Maciel, and is author of Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.]

Legionaries of Christ apologize for Maciel-Magdalene parallel:Fr. Juan Solana said he realizes "now that my words were awkward and suggest a reverence for our founder that we clearly reject."


A version of this story appeared in the Aug 29-Sept 11, 2014 print issue under the headline: On a roll in the Holy Land, Legion compares Maciel to Magdalene.

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