VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis told members of a disgraced religious order on Saturday they must renounce the legacy of their founder and acknowledge he was a con-man who sold the “illusion” of holiness while living a double life as a paedophile.
Francis told the newly elected leaders of the Legionaries of Christ in a prepared speech that its reform was “not over,” even 10 years after the Vatican first appointed a commissioner to clean it up.
“A change of mentality in individuals and an institution takes a long time to sink in,” Francis said in the speech, which was released by the Vatican after a slight illness forced the pope to cancel the audience where he was to have read it.
Although the Legionaries founder, Mexican priest Marcial Maciel, died in 2008 aged 87, insiders say some older Legionaries who knew him and worked with him have still not come to grips with what the pope called his “criminal behaviour”.
Maciel was perhaps the Roman Catholic Church’s most notorious paedophile, even abusing children he had fathered secretly with at least two women while living a double life and being feted by the Vatican and Church conservatives.
Although allegations were made against him as early as 1954, the Vatican and the order only began slowly acknowledging Maciel’s abuse in 2006, when Pope Benedict ordered him to retire to a life of “prayer and penitence”.
In his prepared speech, Francis said that while it was a fact that Maciel founded the order “you cannot consider him an example of sainthood to imitate,” adding that “returning to the past would be dangerous and senseless”.
Maciel, who ran the order like a cult with himself at the centre and brooked no questioning of his authority or motives, managed to create what the pope called “an illusion”.
Last Wednesday, the order’s new leader, 51-year-old American priest John Conner, promised to turn a page as the group enacted new norms to protect children.
Conner, the order’s first non-Mexican leader, said in a statement the Legionaries wanted a “change of the institutional culture that allowed so much suffering to occur”.
Last December, an internal report covering the period from when Maciel founded the group in Mexico 1941 to 2019 showed that he had abused at least 60 boys and that sexual abuse and abuse of power by superiors in the order was rife.
Former members say Maciel gave huge contributions to the Vatican during the papacy of John Paul, who admired the Legionaries’ orthodoxy and ability to produce vocations.
Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Clelia Oziel