Patterns of Scandal in New Ecclesial Movements: Part One, Discerning a Pattern

Though in some quarters the exposure of Fr. Marcial Maciel as a religious leader leading a scandalous double life comes across as sudden, unexpected, and shocking, the fact is that rumors to that effect have been swirling for many years, often in the context of a small legion, if you’ll forgive the pun, of ex-Legionaries who have left their former spiritual home under a cloud of innuendo. Some of these ex-pats have charged, and continue to charge, that the Legionaries of Christ (along with lay affiliate, Regnum Christi) is something approaching a cult; or at least a problematic "cult of personality."

This is old news. Depending on who you talked to, over the years, or which media outlet reported the accusations, the reaction in the larger Catholic community has ranged from triumphant I told you sos of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy variety on the Left, to equally inflammatory counter-charges on the Right about disgruntled fifth-columnists, possibly under the influence of Dark Forces, set upon discrediting the Legionaries and even the Church.

In other words, it hasn’t been pretty.

Let me state right off that I am not now, as the rubric goes, nor ever have been a member of, or been associated with, either the Legionaries of Christ or Regnum Christi, its lay affiliate. I have no special knowledge of the Maciel case, or the inner workings of those organizations, and my only contact at all with the LC/RC — for reasons of brevity the moniker I will use for these two organizations in the course of these articles — is a longtime long-distance friendship with a parish priest who spent several years with the LC back in the eighties. This gentleman’s reasons for leaving the LC were, if memory serves, complex; on one level it might be stated that it simply wasn’t a good temperamental or vocational fit; but there is no question he left with the conviction that, whatever its many valuable aspects, there was something (in his view) not right in the spiritual formation of the Legionaries and the manner of their devotion to its founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel.


Be that as it may, I repeat, I have no special interest or knowledge of this particular case. So why would I undertake to write on this subject at all?

An Encounter Between Fiction and Reality

In 2004 I published a novel , a spiritual thriller, one of whose leading themes was the deleterious and sometimes tragic consequences following affiliation with a fictional lay Catholic student group named SANA, the "Student Apostolate of North America." This group, which in the story had been founded by a Professor of Education (Lionel Krato) as a sort of Catholic fraternity ("Immaculata House") for university students in Milwaukee, had, upon Lionel’s untimely death, been transformed by his brother and nephew, Peter and Richard Krato, into the militant "SANA".

I haven’t the space or time to enumerate the many peculiarities of this imaginary group, explored at length in the novel, but suffice it to say that it interests me that some of the charges that have been laid at the door of the LC/RC would be familiar to any ex-member of SANA, and perhaps to current and ex-members of any number of real-world new ecclesial movements in the Church.

Here follows a brief excerpt from the novel, to give you a feel for what I’m talking about:

(N.B.: In the excerpt, the "Areopagus" refers to the weekly group meeting of the members of Immaculata House. What follows is the result of grad student Richard Krato’s researches into the history of the Knights Templar. The ellipsis in the middle leaves out a couple of paragraphs of "group argument" which would include a potential "spoiler.")

Together, Peter and Richard Krato poured over every available document, reliable or otherwise, relating to the Templars. The fruit of their devoted research was a self-styled Program for an American Crusade, which they presented before the assembled members of the House in the last meeting of the Areopagus before Lionel’s departure for Rome. As might be expected, however, in adapting the Templars’ spirituality to the situation at Immaculata House, Peter and Richard rigorously applied the aspects of the Templar Order that suited them, and vigorously ignored any cautionary elements to be drawn from the order’s controversial history. I enclose a copy of the information Peter and Richard passed out that evening, but I paraphrase their Program here in brief:

1. A two-week guided "formation retreat" (or "boot camp," as it came to be called) for all new recruits or "aspirants" at Immaculata House.

2. An elaborate business plan for organizational expansion by means of modern methods of management and fundraising. (What Peter described as "taking the best of American culture to serve the Church.") The goal was a "franchise" network of identically operated and centrally-controlled subsets spreading across the college and university campuses of the nation, hybridizing the unity of purpose of a military battalion with the financial sophistication and "product familiarity" of a fast-food chain.

3. Charismatic leadership supported by the absolute loyalty of a small but disciplined "Gideon’s Army" formed in military-style obedience.

4. The development of Spiritual Power through the Four Pillars of Spiritual Power Program, which included the practice of Prayer, Poverty, Persistence, and the counsels of Perfection.

Without prior consultation with Lionel, Richard and Peter unveiled their Program before the assembled Areopagus, their pale faces shining as if they had just descended from Sinai with the stone tablets of the Law. Peter was whipping out his flow charts when Lionel arrived, several minutes late and obviously distracted.

Talking without pause like a fringe-party orator in Hyde Park, Peter proceeded to announce to the assembly that God was calling Lionel Krato and the young men of Immaculata House to be the founding members of a well-organized and disciplined army of young apostles that would be to the third millennium what the Knights Templar had been to the Crusades. Moreover, because of America’s unique position of leadership in the world (so went Peter’s reasoning) the conversion of America’s youth would inevitably lead to the conversion of America itself; then the world at large. This in turn would bring about the eventual downfall of all godless regimes, finally ushering in the Reign of the Immaculate Heart. A domino-theory of the spirit, if you will.


Eager to lower the temperature of the heated interchange, Lionel finally pointed out, very quietly at first, that there were many vocations in the Church just as there were many styles and temperaments in the structure of the human personality. Nevertheless, the vocation of Immaculata House, Lionel maintained, was not at all consistent with Peter’s crusading vision. "No matter how noble the cause," he said, "When you mix fallen human nature with ideology and a militant organizational structure, alchemy will operate in reverse: gold will be transformed into lead. Genuine renewal occurs heart to heart, one person at a time."

Undaunted, Peter challenged his older brother to put the matter to a vote. Lionel, his broad face purpling, refused outright. Instead, rising to his feet, Lionel declared in a resonant voice supported by the full weight of his frame, "You’re all free to stay or go as your conscience dictates. If you go, then God be with you, you can try out your scheme someplace else. But I swear as I stand here that I will personally close Immaculata House before I see it turned into the headquarters of a militia!" With that, Lionel exited the room.

Every writer knows (and most readers suspect) that inspiration for such characters or groups is often sparked from some personal experience. Probably the most frequent question I’m asked by people who have read my book is, "What was your inspiration for SANA, and have you ever been a member of such a group?" My answer has invariably been that while I had not, it is true, created SANA entirely out of thin air, its wholly fictional particulars were based on a pattern I had discerned from a motley of sources: from my own experience, yes, many moons ago, with a dysfunctional organization; from personal observation of friends involved in a couple of Catholic groups exhibiting toxic organizational cultures; from a lifelong interest in the history of totalitarian regimes of both "left" and "right"; from research on cults and cults of personality, both religious and secular; from following the public controversies surrounding several new ecclesial communities, from the Catholic charismatic communities back in the eighties to Lumen Dei and Opus Dei; from the recent priestly sex-abuse scandals in the context of the Church hierarchy’s dealing with same.

It takes the better part of my novel (as it took some fourteen years of my writing life) to relate how Lionel’s prophecy of alchemical reverse — of gold being turned into lead — unfolds in the lives of those associated with SANA. Nor does it have much to do in its incarnational details with the unfolding Maciel scandal and the future of the LC/RC; I have no particular insights to offer on a subject I know so little about, first-hand; but what does interest me — what has interested me from my first acquaintance with the rumors about LC/RC and Fr. Maciel, now over twenty years ago — is how those accusations, mapping an alleged pattern of organizational secrecy and aggrandizement, of exaggerated forms of "Church Militant" language and formation, and of abuses of positions of trust and spiritual authority, dovetailed with my own experience, observation and research about groups exhibiting cult tendencies within the Catholic Church.

Does that mean the accusations are true? Absolutely not, so far as I know, though, interestingly, the second most common question I’ve been asked by readers of my novel is, "Did you model SANA after the Legionaries?"

My answer, again, is no. Indeed, the Legionaries were barely on my radar screen at the time I was writing the novel. Moreover, the last thing I would wish to do, by means of this discussion, is to contribute to the anguish now suffered by those thousands of good people, LC/RCers, who are at this moment shocked out of their minds by the unfolding events; but the fact that the question is asked at all has made me wonder if the Maciel case, and that it has hit the national as well as Catholic press and blogosphere in a big way, doesn’t indicate that it is time, perhaps long since time, for the Faithful, acknowledging that "mistakes have been made," to take a closer look at potentially disturbing or problematic elements in some new ecclesial movements; moreover to consider, prayerfully and thoughtfully, what may be done to prevent such scandals and personal damage in the future.

For as with the priestly sex abuse scandals in the American Church, these disasters impact the reputation and occasionally even the faith of Catholics everywhere, not just members of the group in question. And as with the priestly sex abuse scandals in the American Church, the simple fact that a number of clerics and lay leaders, from the founder of a major religious order down to the local parish priest, can get by with such hypocritical and destructive behavior for years or even decades, while their accusers are dismissed as disgruntled troublemakers, or pressured into silence, or even vilified, indicates to me that there may be more than personal sin involved here; that the Church’s system of organizational oversight may be inadequate; that we may have, willy-nilly, stumbled upon a "teaching moment" in the Church, whose implications for religious and lay organizations are wider-ranging than we may first assume.

How I Propose to Proceed

It will take these several articles to cover what I think are the significant issues raised by this scandal. Please keep in mind that the degree to which what I discuss coincides with the particulars of the Maciel/LC/RC situation will be for others to determine. The specifics of Fr. Maciel’s secret life hold little interest for me, nor am I in a position to render judgment on the accuracy of criticisms leveled against the RC/LC organizations as a whole, the circumstances of which I know very little. What interests me, once again, is the pattern and that it seems to be repeating itself over and over again in Catholic organizations these last couple of decades; and whether, finally, anything, reasonably and faithfully, might be done to prevent it from happening again.

To the end of exploring that question, I will present an interview with canonist Pete Vere in the fourth and final part. Stay tuned.

[CE Editor’s Note: This series of articles is adapted from a series previously published on Debra Murphy’s blog and is used by permission.]


Catholic novelist ("The Mystery of Things") and publisher of Idylls Press, founded in 2005 with the mission of "publishing the Catholic imagination."

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage