Papal envoy to run scandal-plagued priestly order

VATICAN CITY Sat May 1, 2010 5:14pm BST

Pope Benedict XVI looks on as he leads his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican April 21, 2010. REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico

Pope Benedict XVI looks on as he leads his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican April 21, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Alessia Pierdomenico

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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict will appoint a special envoy to run and reform an influential Roman Catholic priestly order whose late founder was discovered to have been a sexual molester and to have fathered at least one child.

A Vatican statement on Saturday said the pope would also name a commission to review the constitution, or founding principles, of The Legionaries of Christ, whose founder Father Marcial Maciel, led a double life for decades.

The announcement came at the end of a one-year inquiry of the conservative order which involved visits by papal inspectors to its more than 120 seminaries, 200 schools and 600 centres for lay Catholics around the world.

Some critics had said the scandal had put the order beyond repair and had called for it to be dissolved, but the pope decided to take a half-way step aimed at restructuring.

The statement said that while Maciel was guilty of "grave and objectively immoral behaviour" and had managed to hoodwink many people, most members today were filled with "sincere zeal" and had been oblivious to what it called his "real crimes."

Despite this, the order would have to embark on "a path of profound revision" which would be overseen by the papal delegate and the commission. There was no indication when they would be named.

The scandal concerning the Legion, which has about 850 priests and 2,500 seminarians in 21 countries and runs a Catholic university in Rome, reached its climax as the Catholic Church is being convulsed over reports of abuse of children by priests.

Maciel, a Mexican, who founded the order in 1941 and who died in 2008 at the age of 87, was a cult figure within the order and for years had the ear of the late Pope John Paul II despite allegations that he had abused young male seminarians.

CULT FIGURE

Like in many religious institutions, the founder became a cult figure among members, even while he was alive, and many refused to believe that he could have done anything wrong.

But while heading an order of priests who take vows of celibacy, he also had a mistress with whom he fathered at least one child in Mexico and perhaps two other children by another woman, the order has previously acknowledged.

Former students for the priesthood accused Maciel of sexually abusing them when they were teenagers but the order denied the allegations for years.

In 2006, after new evidence, Pope Benedict ordered Maciel to retire to a life of "prayer and penitence." At the time, the sanctions made him one of the most prominent persons to be disciplined for sexual abuse in the Church's history. He died in 2008, still a priest.

Amid accusations from some critics that Pope Benedict may have looked the other way on cases of sexual abuse before his election -- accusations the Vatican has rejected -- officials have pointed to his firm handling of the Maciel case as evidence of what they say is his tough stand on the issue.

His supporters say he took action while his predecessor John Paul did not give credence to the accusations of abuse.

The Vatican statement also said the pope would dispatch an investigator, known in Church terms as a "visitor," to probe the Legionaries' lay branch Regnum Christi, which has tens of thousands of members.

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