Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ongoing Revelations about Marcial Maciel: Corruption at the Heart of Catholic Clerical System

Rev. James Martin has an interesting posting today at America magazine’s blog about new revelations of scandal involving the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado ( One of the first acts of Benedict as pope was to censure Maciel after a Vatican investigation of many years indicated that allegations he had sexually abused seminarians over a long period of time were true.

Maciel was very close to Benedict’s predecessor John Paul II (who elevated the then Cardinal Ratzinger to one of the most powerful positions in his papacy—head of the theological watchdog group, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). It is widely believed that John Paul protected Maciel from punishment for his history of abusing seminarians.

The religious community that Maciel founded, the Legionaries of Christ, is extremely right-wing and, in many respects, is in a line of direct continuity with the fascism of Franco’s Spain. According to many reports (including persuasive whistle-blowing reports from former Legionaries), the Legionaries deliberately recruit candidates from the wealthiest and most influential sections of society. Because the organization (which consists of both ordained and lay members) values secrecy as it carries out its business, it is believed that many highly-placed lay members of the Legionaries of Christ exert powerful political influence around the world—an influence hidden to the public because of the secrecy with which the Legionaries operate.

In the United States, the Legionaries have sought to take over parishes and Catholic schools by stealth. In some cases, local bishops aware of their intent to seize control of a parish or school have taken steps to thwart their plans. In other cases (Atlanta under Bishop John Donoghue is a good example), they have been actively promoted by a local bishop.

Wherever the Legionaries manage to make their influence known in a Catholic institution or community, there seems to be a pattern of blood-letting, as its ultra-conservative members (ultra-conservative both politically and theologically) try to weed out fellow Catholics who do not agree with them and to place their own members in positions of power in an institution or a community. It is clear to many of us who have monitored the Legionaries for some time now that John Paul II promoted and protected this fascist movement because its politics and theology were akin to the previous pope’s, who paved the way for the “smaller, purer” church Benedict seems intent on creating, by tacitly running off Catholics who did not agree with him on issues like contraception, women’s ordination, or the way power should be exercised in the Christian community.

Though it has been well known for quite some time that, in his years heading the Legionaries of Christ, Maciel had a well-documented and credible history of abusing seminarians, the latest revelation indicates that he has other secrets as well. James Martin links to a posting by David Gibson on his Pontifications blog, which indicates that Maciel has fathered at least one child, and has used funds from his religious community to support the child and its mother (

What I’d like to focus on here is a comment of James Martin about this story. Martin writes:

For one thing, Father Maciel's abuse was against young men, and so most probably assumed, when the abuse revelations were made public, that he was homosexual. Most psychiatrists and psychologists, however, say that sexual abuse against minors is not so much an indication of sexual orientation--whether homosexual or heterosexual--as much as it indicates a stunted or malformed sexuality overall. This is not to deny that most of the clergy sexual abuse was against adolescent boys and even men, and perpetrated by gay men, but rather to point out how the question of abuse is more complex than is usually thought, and whose solution is more complex than simply barring gay men from holy orders.

In my view, this is a very important point to make for a number of reasons. There’s, first of all, the tendency of those who want to use the clerical sexual abuse scandal to gay-bash, to scapegoat gay priests (see This scapegoating ignores the fact that a significant proportion of those abused by priests have been girls; that sexual abuse of female minors is widely believed to be under-reported; that a large percentage of priests who identify as gay are not child abusers; and that there is no credible link between a gay sexual orientation and pedophilia.

One has to wonder about the timing of this latest Maciel revelation. Has Rome already known about Maciel’s fathering of at least one child? If so, why was he punished in 2006 for abusing seminarians, but not for his fathering a child and his secret use of the funds of his community to support the child and its mother? Was there some tactical reason that the 2006 punishment of Maciel focused exclusively on his abuse of seminarians?

These are important questions. But there’s another reason I think Martin’s observations about the newest Maciel story are important. As Martin notes, underlying the entire crisis of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests is “a stunted or malformed sexuality overall.” The underlying problem, one that has not been adequately addressed and which will certainly not be adequately addressed by the witch hunt to ban gays from seminaries, is this question of stunted or malformed sexuality among priest candidates and priests.

As it happens, I woke up yesterday thinking about that precise issue. I was thinking, in fact, of a conversation Steve and I overheard several years ago in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Steve was doing some research in the county historical society’s archives there. I was helping him.

Just before we had come to St. Cloud, a story had appeared in newspapers throughout Minnesota about allegations of horrifying sexual abuse of minors (both male and female) by several monks at St. John’s Abbey near St. Cloud. While we were in the archives, an elderly patron was spouting off about the story.

He was angry. To be specific: he was angry at the media for making a mountain out of a molehill. His perspective, which he shared freely with anyone who wanted to hear, was this: lots of altar boys were abused in the past. And it didn’t harm a single one of them. They went to confession, got over it, went on with their lives. And so, he believed, did their abusers, the priests who had molested them.

“It was a confessional matter,” said our informant. “And that took care of it. No fuss, no newspapers, no attempt by the secular media to tear the church down.”

With some folks, I’ve learned to keep my trap shut. There’s ignorance, and then there’s belligerent ignorance—the kind that the Catholic catechism used to call “invincible ignorance.” With the latter, there’s just no arguing.

So, as the man droned on and on to a group around him who seemed unconvinced by his argument, I thought my own thoughts, and I continue to do so. To wit: there’s something totally sick, totally ill-informed, in the traditional Catholic approach to deep-seated psychological disturbances such as those manifested by the phenomenon of child abuse. Going to confession is an inadequate way of dealing with a deep-seated psychological disturbance. This approach has compounded the problem, not alleviated it.

As I woke thinking about these matters, what occurred to me is that many of those outside the claustrophobic Catholic culture in which this approach to pedophilia appeared sensible have little knowledge of that culture—and of the pathological approach to human sexuality that runs through the culture. Those outside the culture often don’t realize, I suspect, how wrong everything having to do with sex is, in traditional Catholic culture. In a culture in which everything sexual is wrong—from “entertaining” “impure” thoughts to masturbation to touching another person in a way to incite desire to ejaculating outside a vagina to using a condom—every sexual act falls onto a continuum beside every other sexual act.

Part of what is wrong with this pathological approach to human sexuality in the Catholic tradition is that it recognizes no distinction—no distinction in the moral realm, where acts are ranked according to gravity—between, say, rape and masturbation. Both will earn you a ticket to hell, because both are mortal sins. And, in fact, in the teaching of Aquinas, masturbation becomes a more serious sin than rape, because the latter at least involves the possibility of conception (when a man rapes a woman), and the former thwarts that possibility.

Something is clearly wrong with this picture—with the entire picture of traditional Catholic sexual ethics, with the monomaniacal focus of that tradition on acts to the exclusion of persons and relationships, with the use of a narrowly defined procreative norm as the sole norm for judging the morality of sexual acts. It is this everything-wrong-all-equal approach that leads to the assumption that a grown man abusing a helpless minor need only go to confession for his sin (his “sexual” sin), and be done with the problem.

Until he slips again, of course, and again, and again. Confession again, again, and again, and the problem is once again magically dealt with. And meanwhile, there’s a human being—a child—involved in that equation of slip-confess-slip-confess.

What this juvenile, head-in-the-sand approach to sexual ethics entirely overlooks is the serious relational aspect of child abuse: the abuse of a position of power and trust by an adult who is using a vulnerable child as an object. In a game. A game that is not really about sex so much as it is about power, about ego-gratification, about convincing oneself that one has unlimited power over others.

It is the clerical system itself that is corrupt within Catholicism—in its assumption that the ordained are human in a different and better way than are the non-ordained; in its decision to place unilateral power, power over, in the hands of the ordained while withholding all power from the non-ordained; in its linking of salvation and the mediation of grace to the ordained while denying the non-ordained the possibility of accessing God independently of the non-ordained.

When such unchecked power is linked to “stunted and malformed sexuality,” things happen. Bad things. Things that shatter the souls of innocent human beings.

And they aren’t going to stop happening until those who have power in the Catholic church begin to address both the clerical system and the sick system of thinking about sexual ethics in Catholic ethics and doctrine. Meanwhile, it’s just so much easier to blame the gays, isn’t it?