It’s a measure of how bad things have become for the scandal-plagued Legionaries of Christ that the first question a journalist feels obliged to ask the religious order’s new leader is, “Have you ever sexually abused anyone?”
For the record, the answer of Father Eduardo Robles Gil Orvañanos was, “I can promise, swear, whatever you want, that I haven’t. . . it would make no sense at all for us to put someone in a leadership position with something to hide.”
Robles spoke in a Feb. 14 interview with the Globe, his first with an English-language news outlet.
The Legionaries not so long ago were a Catholic powerhouse, a body of gung-ho priests enjoying the support of Pope John Paul II and other Vatican heavyweights and wielding vast political and financial muscle. The order fell from grace after revelations that its founder had lived a shocking double life, including having relationships with two women and fathering up to six children, as well as sexual abuse of young seminarians and, reportedly, even two of his own children.
The founder, Mexican Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, died in 2008. The bombshell about his misconduct, along with scandals involving other prominent Legionaries, makes the order the most polarizing symbol of the broader sexual abuse crisis in Catholicism. A recent Associated Press report described the Legionaries as “one of the most egregious examples of how . . . church leaders put the interests of the institution above those of the victims.”
Some critics, including some of the order’s former members, called for it to be abolished. Benedict XVI instead placed it under papal receivership in 2010, installing a papal delegate to promote reform. That process concluded with the Jan. 20 election of Robles, a 61-year-old priest and formerly the top Legionaries official in Mexico.
Given that history, it’s obviously relevant to wonder if Maciel’s successor has any skeletons in his own closet.
In his Globe interview, Robles insisted there aren’t. He also claimed he wasn’t in on the coverup regarding Maciel, saying that he’s spent his career in the field, mostly in Latin America, and that he only learned the truth in 2008 when one of the order’s officials told him.
Robles pledged that the Legionaries are now committed to zero tolerance for sexual abuse, including a rigorous commitment to transparency.
“We’re fully committed to creating a safe environment in all of our schools and in everything we do,” he told the Globe.
Whatever one makes of Robles’s guarantees, one point is crystal clear: The Legionaries are Pope Francis’ problem now.
Heretofore, one could fault Pope John Paul II for not taking the charges against Maciel seriously, or blame Benedict XVI for appointing a delegate, Italian Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, who has, in the eyes of critics, produced reforms that are more cosmetic than substantive. In any event, none of it could be laid in Francis’ lap.
Now, however, Francis has placed his fingerprints on the order’s future.
In May, he sent a letter offering “a word of encouragement,” and in August he named a prominent member of the Legionaries to the number two position in the Vatican City State. By ratifying the results of the recent elections, he’s signaled that the Legionaries are ready to get back to business, so from here on, it’s his reputation on the line.
Robles said Francis passed on a “very warm” message about his election, and that the Legionaries feel “totally supported” by the pope.
If the Legionaries are seen to have genuinely turned over a new leaf, relaxing their internal controls, collaborating more effectively with the rest of the church, and telling the full truth both about their past and their present, Francis will get deserved credit for engineering real change.
However, if the take-away is that the Legionaries remain mired in the old ways , that they haven’t absorbed the lessons of the Maciel debacle, then Francis has nowhere to deflect the blame.
In his own recent interview with the Globe, Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who enjoys a reputation as a reformer on the sex abuse front, insisted that Francis is “certainly aware of how serious this issue is.”
If so, the pope’s awareness had better include a keen grasp of how the future workings of the Legionaries of Christ looms as an acid test of his commitment. If anything could put a damper on Francis-mania, a perception that he’s half-hearted about recovery from the church’s child abuse scandals might be it.
Creative tension between Francis and his doctrinal czar Continued...