ROME — When accusations of sexual abuse against Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder and then-general director of the Legionaries of Christ, were first published in 1997, Fr. Eduardo Robles Gil was running one of the congregation’s schools in Mexico City.
Fr. Robles Gil did not believe Fr. Maciel had molested boys in his own seminaries, yet the accusations troubled him, and he asked himself what he would do if they turned out to be true.
“I said, ‘I am happy being a priest, it is where God wants me, and he called me to the Legion, so I would continue being a Legionary priest,'” he told Catholic News Service Feb. 28. “Having made that decision, I was no longer affected so much by what might come out in the newspaper.”
Today, Fr. Robles Gil is the troubled congregation’s new general director. He is the congregation’s first elected leader after nearly four years of Vatican-supervised reform that, he said, have left members full of “hope, enthusiasm (and) optimism.”
The Mexican priest was chosen during the Legionaries’ extraordinary general chapter, which closed Feb. 25 after approving a new constitution, which remains unpublished pending final approval by Pope Francis.
The seven-week gathering of 61 Legionary priests from 11 countries also issued a letter condemning Fr. Maciel’s “reprehensible and objectively immoral behavior,” including “abuse of minor seminarians,” “immoral acts with adult men and women,” “arbitrary use of his authority and of material goods,” “indiscriminate consumption of addictive medicines” and plagiarism.
Fr. Robles Gil told CNS neither he nor any other Legionary leader knew about Fr. Maciel’s crimes before 2006, when the Vatican disciplined the founder, instructing him to follow a “life reserved to prayer and penitence, renouncing all public ministry.”
It was only after Fr. Maciel’s death in 2008, when his successor personally told him the accusations were true, that Fr. Robles Gil believed in the founder’s guilt.
“Fr. Maciel handled himself in a very intelligent way in order to be able to hide his things,” the general director said.
Although the founder often withdrew thousands of dollars of cash at a time, supposedly for travel, he kept his biggest illicit dealings separate from the congregation’s finances, said Fr. Robles Gil, who served as treasurer of the Legionaries’ Mexican branch for two years in the early 1990s.
The new general director later sat on a commission dealing with some of Fr. Maciel’s victims, seven of whom received what he describes as “symbolic” amounts of financial compensation for sexual abuse.
Now, the general director said: “I don’t know anyone inside the Legion who says it is not certain Fr. Maciel did these things.”
Fr. Robles Gil does not rule out, nor does he lament, the possibility that some members still feel close to the founder.
“Someone can have a father who committed sins, who abandoned his mother, and continue loving his father,” he said. “Someone can read the books of Oscar Wilde and enjoy the books of Oscar Wilde without worrying whether he was a sinner or not.”
Although Fr. Maciel’s published works are free of doctrinal error, the Legionaries no longer assign them to their seminarians, the general director said.
“If you cannot present someone as a teacher, neither can you present his writings for the purpose of priestly formation,” he said.
Fr. Robles Gil said Fr. Maciel’s disgrace is a serious handicap for the congregation, because canon law calls on religious orders to be faithful to their founders’ spirit, but Fr. Maciel can no longer serve as such a “reference point” for members.
Legionaries have thus been forced to “leap over” their founder and discover their charism in the Gospel, church teachings and their own experience of spirituality, the general director said.
That God chose to found the congregation through an instrument as flawed as Father Maciel is an example of the “mystery of human liberty,” he said.
“But tell me what good work, in the whole church and the whole world, wasn’t made by a sinner?” he asked. “The size of this sin may be bigger and more incoherent, but all the good things in the world, in history, have been made by sinners.”