Money, Scandal and Rome

It was virtually inevitable that the media firestorm over Benedict XVI’s handling of sexually abusive clerics—even if the insinuations against the Pope were unsubstantiated and unfair—would spill backwards toward the late John Paul II. It was also inevitable that the point of attack would be John Paul’s endorsement of the work of Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a religious congregation that enjoyed considerable papal favor during John Paul’s pontificate.

Since John Paul II died, it has become clear that Maciel led a double-life of moral dissolution for decades, fathering out-of-wedlock children, sexually abusing seminarians, and violating the sacrament of penance. The abuse charges were known during John Paul’s time, but the Pope did not believe them; he may have thought them the by-product of tawdry Mexican politics (politics politics and ecclesiastical politics). In the last months of John Paul’s life, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger re-opened an investigation into Maciel’s affairs; in 2006 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “invited” Maciel, no longer head of the Legionaries, to a “reserved life of prayer and penance” with no public ministry. This amounted to ecclesiastical house arrest; Maciel died in 2008.

When the extraordinary range of Maciel’s perfidies became known, Benedict XVI ordered an apostolic visitation of the Legionaries, which has been completed. Strong measures, one hopes, will now be taken to address Maciel’s sins and crimes, to deal with anyone in the Legion who may have aided him in his double-life, and to save the good that can be saved from the Legion and its lay affiliate organization, Regnum Christi. That salvage job will require a definitive break with the past, and with the Maciel mythology that was a large part of his power.

Maciel was well-known for spreading money all over Rome, as Jason Berry has recently written in the National Catholic Reporter. Some Catholics may find it shocking that envelopes of cash were left in the papal apartment. But the fact is that a great many people give money to the pope: visiting bishops, heads of religious orders, Catholic organizations, etc. As John Paul died with virtually no worldly goods, no plausible charge can be made that he personally benefited from Maciel’s “generosity”; and as these things work, the money was likely given to the late Pope’s secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz, now cardinal archbishop of Cracow. Dziwisz often gave cash to poor bishops and others he sensed were in financial need; perhaps some of Maciel’s money went in this direction. A good novelist might even create a scenario in which Dziwisz used money from Maciel and others to fund underground Solidarity clandestinely during the martial law period in Poland in the early 1980s.

The immediate temptation, to which Ross Douthat unhappily succumbed in the April 12 New York Times, is to conclude that these monetary gifts “explain” John Paul II’s support for the Legionaries of Christ and for Maciel. Prudent analysts will resist that temptation. John Paul and Dziwisz were badly deceived by Maciel. So were many other people, including hundreds of high-ranking churchmen, his own religious community, a lot of very wealthy and presumably astute Mexicans and Americans—in fact, people all over the world. Falling prey to this deception constituted a failure in the late pope’s governance, objectively. But this failure was neither willful (he knew something was awry and did nothing about it), nor venal (he was “bought”), nor malicious (he knew what was going on, and didn’t care), and thus doesn’t call into question John Paul II’s heroic virtue. Nobody ever “bought” Karol Wojtyla with money, in which he had zero interest since his days as a manual laborer in Nazi-occupied Cracow.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger politely and firmly declined Maciel’s gifts; whatever effect Maciel’s money may have had on others in the Roman Curia ought to be investigated as the apostolic visitation of the Legion of Christ is brought to a conclusion. Having spent more than two decades studying the life of John Paul II, however, it seems to me utterly implausible that the late pope’s failure to read Marcial Maciel correctly had anything to do with money.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • It is unbearable to think that the memory of our beloved John Paul II could be tainted. Reading this article, though, I think the worst that could be said of John Paul and Cardinal Dziwisz is that they suffered the naivete that sometimes afflicts holy persons; their goodness made it hard for them to see evil and so they saw only good. Naivete of this sort is hardly a fault, in fact it may be a virtue. It is childlikeness, and further evidence of John Paul’s sanctity. We shouldn’t be concerned for John Paul; we should pray instead for the repose of Maciel’s soul, who has his judge.

  • It is incomprehensible that such a man as Maciel could put into effect a system of formation that wasn’t gravely tainted. These “spiritual sons” admit they saw nothing wrong and vilified anyone who suggested their founder was less than “the perfect Legionary.” If he was, then that says more about the system than any outsider can imagine. No good can justify the rape of children and financial fraud — and leaving it in existence would be a constant reminder of several duped popes.

  • Christi Derr

    I agree with you, Genevieve. The problem with the LC is too deeply routed to be fixed – I have been praying for a long time that the order will just be shut down. I am sure there are some good men who are currently in the order, and I pray they are helped out and can become diocesan priests. The phrase “God will not be mocked” keeps running through my mind when I think of the LC. Their evil founder mocked everything that is good and holy in the church, including duping a holy Pope. I am confident the order will cease to exist – let’s just hope it is sooner rather than later.

  • candeo

    I don’t think it’s within our pay grade to say the entire order should be disbanded. True, Maciel was a scoundrel, but I believe Our Lord can bring good out of this evil. I believe He can (and has) used the Legionaries for profound good, and if, moving forward, He decides to continue to do so, it will be yet a further testimony that no flesh may glory in His sight–that the work is His, and His alone. What greater testimony to His Sovereignty than to see the Order transformed and (consistently) bearing good fruit?

  • candeo

    I don’t think we should speculate whether or not the entire order should be disbanded (I suppose the Holy See will take care of that). True, Maciel was a scoundrel, but I believe Our Lord can bring good out of this evil. I believe He can (and has) used the Legionaries for profound good, and if, moving forward, He decides to continue to do so, it will be yet a further testimony that no flesh may glory in His sight–that the work is His, and His alone. What greater testimony to His Sovereignty than to see the Order transformed and (consistently) bearing good fruit?

  • candeo

    Oops, submitted twice.

  • goral

    It is our nature to look at a bigger than life saintly figure like our late great pope as someone beyong the possibility of making such a serious error of judgment. It appears now that he did. Those who are aware of the statement that even the elect can and will be fooled, forgive him. Those who hate the Church and look for reasons to suspect, distrust and villify her, have found another one.
    Yes, the church must weed out these infiltrators and correct systems that leave them unchecked. I also think that these evil events in the life of the Church are there to weed out those of little faith.

  • I am a former member of the Legionaries of Christ. I was with the Congregation for 21 years. I am now part of the diocese of Corpus Christi, TX and the pastor of the newest parish in the city. As I have expressed openly on the Internet many times, my experience with the Legionaries was very positive. We had no idea that Fr. Maciel had a terrible problem. We never saw it. I was not in his “inner circle” of close collaborators, but I did have a lot of contact with him through his conferences (which were all excellent), his personal spiritual letters (which were also excellent) and the many, many times that we shared meals together with the community, especially during my two years in Rome. We spoke personally a number of times about my apostolic work and my ideas for other apostolates. He always admired me because he knew that I worked hard and that I would always do my job. He knew that he could count on me. This is why it is so hard to figure out what happened to the man. It is all so sad and extremely disappointing.

    I agree with George Weigel’s article. During my two years in Rome, we had quite a bit of contact with John Paul II. We went to General Audiences and I even served one of his Masses in the Vatican along with 7 other Legionary seminarians. I do agree that John Paul II could not fathom that something was terribly wrong with Fr. Maciel. However, I do think that towards the end of his life he did realize that there was a problem.

    In his last book, “Memory and Identity”, the Holy Father dedicated an entire chapter to the new ecclesial movements. He made no mention of Fr. Maciel, the Legionaries of Christ and the Regnum Christi Movement. I believe that John Paul distanced himself form the whole thing as he was dying and left Cardinal Ratzinger to clean house.

    Getting back to Fr. Maciel and my years in the Legionaries, I can’t believe that none of his closest collaborators had no idea what was going on. I simply do not know what they knew or did not know. I was very close to many of these major superiors and I admired them very much. I worked closely with many of them. I never heard or saw anything that was out of order. In fact, everything in the life of the Legion was ferverously Catholic, orthodox and very strict.

    So, Fr. Maciel was either the “Great Houdini” or his closest people knew what was going on and covered for him or excused his actions.

    Regarding what to do next, I have given this a lot of thought. I don’t see how Pope Benedict can reform the Congregation. Many Legionaries are still in a state of total denial. I think that the Holy Father has to start all over. Take the good, and there is a lot of good, and start all over.

    I do miss the good things that I experienced in the Legion and I could never be doing what I am doing now as a diocesan priest without the years of formation and positive experiences that I received in the Congregation.

    However, the terrible thing is this: if that kind of corruption could go on in that kind of a relgious order, what on earth is going on every where else?

    It is important that we do not get discouraged, but rather we need to pray for Pope Benedict and trust in the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ: “the gates of hell shall not prevail”.

  • goral

    Thank you Fr. Farfaglia for your excellent insights and commentary.
    Posts like yours really put a balanced view on a topic which is confusing at the very least.