El Papa visita México mientras empeora escándalo

St. Petersburg Times. David Adams.

La visita coincide con renovadas acusaciones de que el Vaticano ha ignorado denuncias de abuso sexual contra el padre Marcial Maciel, un cercano colaborador de Juan Pablo II.

MEXICO CITY -- When Pope John Paul II arrives today on the final leg of an 11-day tour, he can expect a tumultuous reception.

But, wherever he goes these days it seems the Roman Catholic Church is dogged by sexual scandal. Mexico is no exception.

The pope's visit comes at a difficult time for Mexico's church as it struggles to come to terms with evidence of sexual misconduct that has lain dormant for many years.

But unlike the controversy in the United States, in which bishops are alleged to have covered up evidence of abuse, in Mexico it is the Vatican that faces accusations of hiding the truth.

The focus is a sex scandal involving allegations of pedophilia against one of the pope's most trusted associates in the Mexican church.

In what some Mexican priests and analysts say is the most serious case of alleged abuses to have been raised so far anywhere in the world, the accusations concern the founder of one of Mexico's most influential yet least known religious orders.

The allegations against Father Marcial Maciel, the 82-year-old Mexican-born founder of the Legionaries of Christ, date to the order's creation in 1941 and span two decades of alleged abuse against some 30 seminarians, who were mostly young boys.

Despite detailed accusations by nine former members of the order, including a 1989 letter to the pope and a formal canon law complaint seeking Maciel's excommunication, the Vatican has remained silent throughout.

The pope has addressed the broader scandal. On Sunday, speaking to youths in Toronto, he said that the sexual abuse of children by priests "fills us all with a deep sadness and shame."

Maciel has declined to discuss the allegations. After they were raised in a 12,000-word article published in 1997 by the Hartford Courant, he issued a strongly worded letter of denial. "They are defamations and falsities with no foundation whatsoever," he stated, while offering his "pain and prayers" for each of his accusers.

At the time the accusations failed to make an impact and were not picked up by the Mexican media. Legion spokesmen in Mexico and the United States dismissed the affair as the result of a conspiracy by disgruntled former priests, who lost a power struggle for control of the order in the late 1950s.

But the nine accusers say they came forward only after exhausting internal church channels. The nine men, now in their 60s, include several university professors and a lawyer, as well as the legion's former U.S. president and the order's one-time treasurer. None of the allegations involve the legion's U.S. operations, and instead relate to alleged incidents in Mexico, Spain and Italy.

"It was very difficult for us at the time," said Juan Vaca, 65, the legion's former U.S. president, in an interview broadcast on Mexican television in April.

Vaca, who left the order in the early 1990s, said his abuse at the hands of Maciel began at age 10 and continued for a decade. "There are strict controls within the order. We were young boys, and we were raised to believe that Maciel was our "Father.' "

Vaca and other former legion members say they were obliged to take an oath of secrecy, swearing never to criticize the legion or its superiors, and to inform on anyone who did.

Their stories were buried for years by the Mexican media, which feared to offend an order with close ties to Mexico's political and business elite.

But as Mexico's political system has opened up since the defeat in July 2000 of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico uninterrupted for 71 years, the story of abuse in the legion has slowly begun to emerge.

In the last three months the accusers have appeared on an hourlong discussion program on Mexico's leading Televisa network, as well as on a segment on ABC's evening news show 20/20.

The men say Maciel led a double life, displaying strict religious devotion during the day and taking boys, sometimes two at a time, to bed in the evenings. Several of the men say Maciel persuaded them to oblige his sexual desires by claiming that he had a personal dispensation from Pope Pius XII to carry out the acts.

"I am very angry about the way the Vatican hierarchy has covered this up," said Vaca, who now teaches psychology in New York. "I would like once and for all for the Catholic Church to recognize the existence of this criminal behavior. I cannot be an accomplice to that with my silence."

The legion is Mexico's fastest-growing order with 503 priests and 2,500 seminarians operating in 20 countries, including a strong presence in the United States, Spain and Ireland. It operates a string of prestigious private schools across Mexico, as well as a university in the capital.

Its influence stems in large part from an elite lay movement called Regnum Christi, or Kingdom of Christ, with an estimated 50,000 members, including some of the country's wealthiest businessmen. Marta Sahagun, the wife of Mexico's president, Vicente Fox, is a member.

Although it is not known whether the Maciel case will be raised during the pope's visit, the broader issue of sexual abuse is likely to be discussed in private talks with Mexican bishops.

The Mexican church is under growing public pressure over sexual abuse in its ranks. Church leaders recently conceded that a small number of priests have been involved in pedophilia and other sexual abuse.

During a meeting in April of Mexico's Catholic bishops, some spoke against turning over abuse cases to civil authorities, arguing that "dirty laundry should be washed at home." But Cardinal Norberto Rivera, Mexico's highest ranking Catholic and considered a possible future pope, later issued a groundbreaking statement saying no one should be above the law. "When these criminal abuses occur, inside or outside the church, of course they should be denounced to the . . . authorities," he said.

But the Vatican has appeared remarkably reluctant to have Maciel's case brought out into the open.

Maciel is highly regarded in Rome where the order has its headquarters. In an era of depleting numbers of Catholic priests and faithful, the legion has distinguished itself as a dynamic recruiter of bright young talent.

With 88-million Catholics, Mexico has the second-largest Catholic population in the world. With a large immigrant population in the United States, Mexico is also of strategic importance to the Vatican's efforts to spread the Gospel across the border.

Maciel has accompanied the pope on two North American trips and helped organize his four previous visits to Mexico. An official church publication on sale in Mexico City bookstores welcoming the pope on this latest visit includes a forward by Maciel.

When a letter was delivered to the Vatican in 1997 seeking to bring the Maciel case to the pope's attention, the accusers say their appeal was brushed aside by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope's right hand. Maciel was "very dear" to the pope, he is said to have responded. When ABC's 20/20 tried to question Ratzinger about the case this year in Rome, the cardinal scolded reporter Brian Ross with a slap to the wrist.

There is no secret about the pope's proclaimed respect for Maciel. In recognition of his work, the pope has presided over the ordination of new legion priests, repeatedly praising Maciel for his loyalty to the Vatican as well as his "efficacious guide to youth."

As recently as January 2001 the pope offered his "heartfelt congratulations" to Maciel and the legion on their 60th anniversary pilgrimage to the Vatican. "You have realized that the little seed which the divine sower planted in the soil of a few young hearts is now a leafy tree," he said.

But critics say the pope should have known by then that some of those "young hearts," including several of Maciel's earliest recruits, had already abandoned the order and raised the issue of sexual abuse with the Vatican.


By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2002

Título Original: The visit coincides with renewed accusations that the Vatican ignored abuse by a trusted pope associate.