The news two weeks ago concerning Fr. Marcial Maciel was devastating to members of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi; it was heartbreaking to see my friends on television, clearly distraught at the realization that their founder and spiritual father was guilty of serious crimes.
The news shook me, too, and not only because the sins of any priest wound the priesthood. I am not a priest of the Legion of Christ, nor am I a member of Regnum Christi. In 1997 I started writing for the National Catholic Register, the Catholic weekly bought the previous year by the Legion of Christ. For the last dozen years, including five as Rome correspondent, I have been a frequent contributor to the National Catholic Register, covering many of the most significant stories. While I now write mostly elsewhere, the National Catholic Register was my first journalistic home and an institution for which I have great and continuing affection. My first thoughts upon hearing the news were for my colleagues at the newspaper, especially my friend, the editor Thomas Hoopes.
I have always been proud to be associated with the National Catholic Register. I still remain proud of my association, grateful for the opportunity it gave me to grow as a Catholic journalist. I hope that our long association will continue. In twelve years I have seen editors and writers come and go. In the high-turnover world of newspapers, I have been there longer than most.
And it is for that reason, out of concern for the newspaper’s integrity and future, I feel obliged to say that this is a time of reckoning. I have waited for others to speak first. But two issues of the newspaper have been published since the news broke, and it has yet to address forthrightly the difficulties it now faces.
The news about Fr. Maciel affects the National Catholic Register in a particular way. It is a Catholic newspaper, and so is obligated both by profession and by faith to tell the truth. It is also a Legion of Christ apostolate, and Catholics will be looking toward it as an indication of how they might respond to this whole matter.
The twelve years I have been associated with the National Catholic Register correspond exactly to the time since the public allegations against Fr. Maciel were published for the first time in February 1997 in the Hartford Courant. Over that time, the approach of the editors has been not to cover the story save when absolutely necessary, and then to give it minimal coverage at best.
That is not surprising. After all, Fr. Maciel was the ultimate proprietor until 2005. To be fair, as a general rule the National Catholic Register has not given wide attention to scandals in the Church, preferring to focus on areas of Catholic vitality. Even taking that into account, however, those who write and edit for the newspaper must confess now that our coverage of Fr. Maciel’s case has been inadequate. Even the decision to cover this breaking news with wire stories continued that practice.
The newspaper was used on occasion to defend Fr. Maciel, and the newspaper’s officers did so elsewhere. The publisher, Fr. Owen Kearns, LC, as American spokesman for the Legion of Christ in 1997, could not have been more direct: “Each of these allegations is false. Fr. Maciel has never engaged in sexual relations of any sort with any seminarian or novice, nor has he engaged in any of the other improprieties alleged.”
Fr. Kearns believed then that he was speaking the truth. We now know that he was not. He was not the publisher then, but he is now. It is awkward, to say the least, to have the current publisher on the public record saying things on a major news story that are not true. Sooner rather than later, he and many others will have to recant and repent of all that Fr. Maciel allowed them to do in his defense.
To date, Fr. Kearns has written two brief comments for the website and the print issue. They principally deal with his reaction to the news and how the Legion of Christ plan to deal with it. They do not address the role of the National Catholic Register in covering the story. I argue for a fuller response; it may yet come. We already know that what was published was not true; that should be enough to acknowledge that errors were made. The reluctance to engage this forthrightly and quickly already indicates that the culture of truth-telling which ought to mark a newspaper has been made subordinate to a culture of institutional defensiveness.
The editor, Thomas Hoopes, has commendably gone further. He has offered an apology for what he wrote elsewhere defending Fr. Maciel. He published the following on Amy Welborn’s blog: “All I want to say is, I’m sorry. I want to say it here, because I defended Fr. Maciel here, and I need to be on the record regarding that defense. I’m sorry, to the victims, who were victims twice, the second time by calumny. I’m sorry, to the Church, which has been damaged. I’m sorry, to those I’ve misled. I did it unwittingly, but this isn’t a time for excuses. The Church gave me great, great good in Regnum Christi. The Church did bring justice, and did penalize this man. Thank God for the Church. I seek repentance and forgiveness, and I leave it at that.”
Hoopes apologized for what he wrote on Amy Welborn’s blog. It was a forthright and courageous statement, a marked contrast to some of the bewildering statements made by official Legion authorities, including the astonishing open letter from the Legion of Christ’s general director, Fr. Alvaro Corcuera, full of spiritual non sequiturs and praise for Fr. Maciel. Hoopes’ signal contribution was to indicate that someone, somewhere, grasped what was really at stake. That being said, his apology did not address what was done at the newspaper, though it was widely quoted because he is editor of the National Catholic Register. It appeared neither on the website nor in print.
We now know that what the National Catholic Register reported about Fr. Maciel was not the whole truth. That may be understandable, as it appears that Fr. Maciel devoted his considerable energies and talents to obscuring the whole truth about his life. If what we have heard repeatedly is truethat those who lived with him for years had no inkling that anything was awrythen the National Catholic Register was just another in a long line deceived by a master fraudster.
Yet that does not let the Register off the hook when, as a newspaper, it chose not to pursue the truth with any vigor. Even at this late date, it has never reported the full extent of the accusations against Fr. Maciel. Worse still, it published what was false. Even if we once thought it to be true, we now know it to be false. Ordinary Christian morality demands of that the newspaper correct what it published. Fundamental journalistic ethics demands the same. Simple justice demands it.
In November 2001, Fr. Kearns wrote a substantial defense of Fr. Maciel, questioning the professional integrity of the reporters who wrote the original stories and the honesty of Fr. Maciel’s victims. Those words must now be retracted, especially as they were presented by the publisher of the newspaper.
In 2006, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of Benedict XVI, prohibited Fr. Maciel from any public exercise of his priesthood, the National Catholic Register did not report the story itself. It published the official statements of the CDF and the Legion of Christ. Fr. Kearns published his own reaction, echoing entirely the Legion of Christ’s interpretation. That interpretation, it will be remembered, likened Fr. Maciel to Jesus Christ in his silence before his accusers. It was left unsaid who was playing the role of the Sanhedrin or Pontius Pilate.
In any case, the editorial, written by Fr. Kearns, specifically stated that the newspaper would not cover the story in the “common journalistic way” but would rather follow “the example of Fr. Maciel.” As to the banishment of Fr. Maciel, the editorial took the position that it was an honor for the Legion of Christ: “We are not afraid of this crosson the contrary, we are honored by it. If you pray for the Legionaries, don’t pray that the cup be taken away, pray that we be worthy of drinking it to the dregs.”
The dregs have arrived. The National Catholic Register’s coverage of the CDF decision was deliberately inadequate. Whatever honor there was in it for the Legion of Christ, a Catholic newspaper ought to have considered what it meant that the Holy Father judged it best for Fr. Maciel to abide by the penalties usually given to elderly priests found guilty of sexual abuse. The unmistakable implication of both the Legion of Christ’s response and the publisher’s reaction was that the CDF had required an innocent priest to relinquish his public ministry. The newspaper failed to entertain the most obvious interpretation of the CDF decision: that Fr. Maciel was guilty of grave canonical crimes. That is not defensible journalism, let alone Catholic journalism.
What is to be done now? The National Catholic Register is a valuable contributor to the new evangelization. Despite failings on this story and matters related to the Legion of Christunderstandable perhaps, but not excusableit should continue to make that contribution. But its credibility has been damaged, and needs to be restored.
The National Catholic Register must apologize to its readers for publishing what is now known to be false, and for not pursuing the truth.
The National Catholic Register should report this story, with its own writers and resources, according to the principles of good journalism. That means no longer accepting Legion of Christ statements regarding Fr. Maciel at face value. It does not matter whether Fr. Corcuera writes them before the Blessed Sacrament or elsewhere. The official statements have been wrong for a dozen years. An open, honest forum for examining these matters will serve our readers and the renewal, if possible, of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi.
In particular, there are five stories the National Catholic Register should endeavour to report:
(1) The extent of the accusations made against Fr. Maciel. Referring vaguely to the “news about Fr. Maciel” is not actual reporting. It is unheard of in journalism to report on a criminal proceeding and not mention the full extent of the charges. In particular, it needs to be made clear that however embarrassing it is for Fr. Maciel to have had mistresses and fathered children, that is not the key issue. For a priest to have a mistress is a serious sin, but it is not a canonical crime, unless that mistress was a minor, a possibility that must be investigated in Fr. Maciel’s case. The CDF declaration made clear that Fr. Maciel was being investigated for the most grave canonical crimes a priest can commit, the sexual abuse of minors and the abuse of the sacraments.
In fact, given that the canonical statute of limitations had expired by the time of the CDF investigation, it stands to reason that what the CDF investigated was the accusation that Fr. Maciel granted absolution to those with whom he had engaged in sexual sins. Aside from sacrileges against the Blessed Sacrament, it is perhaps the most abominable abuse of the sacraments.
To date, various Legionary priests have conceded that some of the accusations against Fr. Maciel are true. Fr. Corcuera is reported to have said that he does not have precise information on Fr. Maciel’s crimes, as implausible as that may seem. The lack of basic information provided by Fr. Corcuera has created an environment which encourages rumors. It is a matter of legitimate journalistic inquiry to establish which accusations are true, and whether the most grave crime of absolving an accomplicefor which there is no statute of limitationsis the reason the CDF moved against Fr. Maciel. If Fr. Maciel is not guilty of those most severe crimes against the sacraments, then it would be a service to what remains of his good name to make that clear.
(2) If it is indeed the case that Fr. Maciel’s abuse of the sacrament of confession was the basis for his banishment in 2006, then it is important to examine how he shaped the practice of confession in the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi, especially in regard to the formation of seminarians. For example, is the strict separation between external forum and internal forum maintained in the Legion of Christ seminaries, as required by canon law? Honest reporting on legitimate stories in the Legion of Christ should not be absent from the National Catholic Register.
(3) The list of those who made false statements defending Fr. Maciel now includes almost all senior Legion of Christ priests. Did any of them do so knowingly? Those are the most basic journalistic questions after a grave scandal is revealed: Who knew about it? When? What did they do? The Church as a whole has painfully learned that only transparency and disclosure can restore confidence. The light must be shone into the dark places, even if it includes places close to home.
(4) In May 2005, just weeks after Benedict XVI’s election, an unusual, unsigned, statement was issued from the Secretariat of State of the Holy See, stating that no canonical process was underway or foreseen against Fr. Maciel. That statement was made widely available by the Legion of Christ as a means of indicating that Fr. Maciel had been exonerated. In light of subsequent events, it appears that the statement was an attempt to frustrate the work of the CDF in investigating Fr. Maciel. The origins of that statement, and the plausible complicity of the Legion of Christ’s leadership in producing that statement, should be explored.
(5) A series of high-profile Catholics were, over the years, invited by the Legion of Christ to come to the public defense of Fr. Maciel. How were they so persuaded, and who, if anyone, in the Legion of Christ leadership was party to deceiving them? The good name of other people is at stake here.
Why should the National Catholic Register do all this? A good Catholic newspaper must not shy away from the truth. But it would frankly make the newspaper look absurd if the whole Catholic world is discussing Fr. Maciel and the Register’s pages largely ignore the whole matter.
Moreover, the odd way in which the news was made public, with rumors and leaks and vague statements from superiors, indicates that the Legion of Christ itself either cannot be or will not be a reliable source of information on this matter. The National Catholic Register might be able to do in part what the Legion of Christ seems unable to do.
Indeed, even setting aside the particular charges against Fr. Maciel, all those who know and support the Legion of Christ are aware that cultural change is needed. Benedict’s abolition of some of the Legion of Christ’s vows in 2007 indicates that he recognizes this. The general approval that greeted Archbishop Edwin O’Brien’s crackdown on the Legion of Christ in Baltimore last year shows how widespread that recognition is. Part of that cultural change will necessitate a greater transparency and less fear of public comment and criticism. If a newspaper owned by the Legion of Christ cannot be a forum of openness, transparency, and criticism, then there is little hope for the order and movement as a whole.
The National Catholic Register is a Catholic newspaper and a Legion of Christ apostolate. This crisis requires repentance and change, if the newspaper is to be true to its mission as a Catholic newspaper. As a contributor to the renewal and reform of the Legion of Christ. I urge those responsible for the newspaper to begin that repentance and change.
Fr. Raymond J. de Souza writes for the National Post and, since 1997, for the National Catholic Register.