The case of Fr. Marciel Maciel Degollado, founder of the controversial order of priests known as the Legionaries of Christ, occupies a sadly distinctive place in the long history of clergy sex abuse in the Catholic church. A new documentary by Jason Berry, “Vows of Silence,” details the arduous path victims faced in bringing Maciel’s abuse to the Vatican’s attention.
If many were surprised by Pope Benedict XVI’s emphasis on the sex abuse crisis during his recent visit to the United States, the action he took against Maciel early in his papal tenure signaled that he viewed the crisis as a more serious matter than his predecessor, and that he intended to confront it more directly.
Maciel was ultimately disciplined by Benedict in 2006, two years before Maciel’s death. A cardinal on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who refused to be identified, told NCR at the time that the material accumulated in the investigation left little doubt about the validity of charges brought, in another official’s description, by more than 20 but fewer than 100 accusers.
Maciel brought an unparalleled vanity and daring to the sex abuse crisis, taking a spot several times on John Paul II’s worldwide stage, as well as appointment by the pope to several synods. He exploited such connections to raise millions of dollars and to attract significant numbers of young seminarians to his cause. He stood in the limelight, protected by papal favor, even though he had been publicly accused repeatedly of sexually abusing young seminarians.
Berry’s pioneering investigative reporting helped break the sex abuse story nationally in 1984 and his reporting on Maciel and the Legion, much of it appearing in NCR, arguably pushed the Vatican to reopen its investigation of Maciel. In the documentary, he takes the disparate strands of a story that has been told over years as it developed and weaves them together into a coherent whole. The documentary exposes a papacy that paid little attention to the warning signs of the scope of the scandal and a church judicial system at times more interested in obscuring or ignoring the truth than pursuing it.
As Berry described it in a recent interview, “The film is an anatomy of the justice system of the Vatican, and the Legion of Christ is a reality the Vatican must confront” because the order, which he said has never dealt publicly with the scandal of its founder, “continues to make money that they use to present themselves as a force of resurgent orthodoxy,” he said.
The documentary, produced and directed by Berry, allows the viewer to measure the testimony of former Legionary priests, some of whom brought the case against Maciel, charging they were abused as young teenage seminarians, against the consistent claims of the order that the charges are the product of a conspiracy of disgruntled former members.
It details the lengthy stop-and-go investigation by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which ultimately took testimony from scores of witnesses from Europe, Latin America and the United States.
Former priests and seminarians, some of whom joined the Legionaries when they were as young as 10 years old, tell of the secrecy the order fosters, and the indoctrination they underwent in the belief that Maciel was a living saint. Former members describe the private vow, repeatedly emphasized, that prohibited members from uttering anything negative about “nuestro padre,” our father, as Maciel was referred to. Mail was screened, contact with families was limited and access to the Internet in recent years was so severely restricted that a magna cum laude graduate of Marquette University who was a member of the Legion said he only learned of the charges against Maciel years after he joined the order when he was sent to Rome, where he had access to the Internet. Even then, he was forbidden by the private vow, which since has been banned by Pope Benedict XVI, from telling other members of the order about the charges.
The documentary was shot in Mexico, Italy and various cities in the United States and includes the little-covered biography of Maciel who, as a young man, was twice expelled from seminaries for reasons not disclosed. He was eventually ordained by an uncle, who was a bishop, and his entire life as a priest was spent building his order and raising funds.
The documentary has been screened recently in Milwaukee, at the New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival, at the University of Rhode Island and Georgetown University. On May 2-3 it will be shown at the Madrid Documentary Festival in Madrid, Spain.
Further information on the documentary can be found at VowsofSilenceFilm.com.
[Tom Roberts is news director and editor-at-large for NCR.]