VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI will name a personal delegate with authority over the Legionaries of Christ and a commission to study its constitutions, the first steps toward a profound reform of the order, the Vatican said.

In a lengthy statement May 1, the Vatican indicated that the Legionaries would need to undergo very deep changes, including a redefinition of the order’s religious charism and a revision of the way authority is exercised among its members.

While the pope will have the final word on whatever changes are eventually imposed, one Vatican source said after seeing the statement: “It looks like they are calling for a refoundation of the order.”

The pope met April 30 with the five bishops who conducted a visitation of the Legionaries’ institutions over the past year. They visited almost all the order’s religious houses and most of its pastoral institutions, meeting with more than 1,000 Legionaries.

The Vatican emphasized what it said was a high degree of sincerity and cooperation shown by the Legionaries and said the visitors encountered many young priests who were “exemplary, honest and full of talent.”

The Vatican statement castigated the Legionaries’ founder, the late Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, who had been found to have fathered children and sexually abused seminarians. His “most grave and objectively immoral conduct” calls for “a path of profound revision” in the order, the Vatican statement said.

It said Fr. Maciel committed “true crimes” that reflected “a life devoid of scruples and of authentic religious sentiment.” Most Legionaries didn’t know about his conduct because Fr. Maciel was able to skillfully “create alibis and obtain the trust, confidence and silence of those around him,” it said.

Most Legionaries, because of their “sincere zeal,” believed that accusations against Fr. Maciel could only be slander, it said. The statement did not specifically refer to those in leadership roles in the Legionaries of Christ, or how much they may have known about their founder’s transgressions.

The Vatican said the visitation highlighted three primary requirements:

  • The need to “redefine the charism” of the Legionaries of Christ, preserving “the true nucleus, that of ‘militia Christi’ (the army of Christ), which distinguishes the apostolic and missionary action of the church.”

  • The need to revise the exercise of authority in the order, in a way that “respects the conscience” and is closely connected with truth.

  • The need to preserve the enthusiasm and missionary zeal of younger members through adequate formation.

“In fact, the disappointment about the founder could place in question the vocation and that nucleus of charism that belongs particularly to the Legionaries of Christ,” it said.

The Vatican said the pope wanted to assure the Legionaries and members of the order’s lay movement, Regnum Christi, that “they will not be left on their own” and that the church will “accompany them and help them on the path of purification that awaits them.”

Part of that path, it said, is a reaching out to those inside and outside the order who were “victims of the sexual abuse and of the system of power put in place by the founder.”

“To them at this moment go the thoughts and prayers of the Holy Father, together with gratitude for those among them who, in the face of great difficulty, had the courage and the constancy to demand the truth,” it said.

As for future steps, the statement said the pope has “reserved to himself” those decisions, beginning with the naming of his delegate and the commission to study the order’s constitutions. He will also name a visitor for the Regnum Christi movement, at their request.

The five bishops who conducted the investigation into the Legionaries of Christ included Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. The Vatican said the bishops had also consulted with many diocesan bishops in the countries where the Legionaries operate.

Although the five bishops acted independently, “they have reached a widely convergent evaluation and a shared opinion,” it said.

They handed in their reports to the pope and other top Vatican officials at a meeting that began April 30 and continued the next day. Participants included the three cardinals who will be involved in follow-up work on the visitation: Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state; U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; and Cardinal Franc Rode, head of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

After investigating allegations that Fr. Maciel had sexually abused young seminarians, the Vatican in May 2006 ordered him to stop practicing his ministry in public and to live a life of prayer and penitence. Fr. Maciel died in January 2008 at age 87.

In early 2009, the Legionaries said that Fr. Maciel had fathered a daughter; more recently, Legionary officials acknowledged that he had sexually abused seminarians, and they asked forgiveness for failing to listen to his accusers.