The saga of the Legion of Christ represents one of the most egregious examples of how the Vatican ignored decades of reports about sexually abusive priests as church leaders put the interests of the institution above those of the victims.
The Rev. Marcial Maciel founded the cult-like Legion in 1941 in Mexico and oversaw its growth into a large and prominent congregation despite credible reports that he was a drug addict and child molester. After Maciel’s death in 2008, the Legion admitted that he fathered three children and sexually abused his seminarians.
In 2010, the Vatican took over the order and a papal delegate has been overseeing a reform and “purification.” In January, the Legion will elect a new leadership and approve a new set of constitutions.
The Legion scandal has been particularly damaging to the Vatican because Maciel was held up by Pope John Paul II and his cardinals as a model for the faithful, with the order admired for its orthodoxy and ability to bring in money and new priests.
Like all Legion priests, Williams had been a staunch defender of Maciel. When Maciel’s double life became public in 2009, Williams told the Catholic ETWN program that the revelations were a “very, very hard blow to all of us.”
Until he left active ministry, Williams was the most publicly prominent priest in the 950-strong order. He is the author of such books as 2008’s “Knowing Right From Wrong: A Christian Guide to Conscience,” and was a commentator for the U.S. broadcaster CBS. He was the superior of the Legion’s general directorate in Rome in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The Legion’s revelation about a senior cleric having abused a novitiate was contained in a report on the steps the Legion has taken to address sexually abusive clergy within its ranks and respond to the victims of Maciel. According to the report by the Legion’s superior, the Rev. Sylvester Heerman, 35 priests have been accused of sexually abusing minors; nine were found guilty and 14 were acquitted in a church trial. Two had left the priesthood when the allegations were made, so no church sanctions could be imposed, and 10 cases are still under review. In addition, two Legion superiors were found guilty of sexually abusing adults under their case and three were acquitted.
The Legion said the numbers indicate that less than 1 percent of the 1,133 priests ordained in the 72-year history of the order had been found guilty by a church trial of abuse, and less than 4 percent had been abused. A Legion spokesman said he didn’t know what the percentage was for the current number of Legion priests.