VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Legion of Christ religious order has elected a new superior and governing council for the first time since the Vatican took it over in 2010 amid revelations that its founder was a pedophile and a fraud.
But in a clear sign that the Vatican didn't trust the Legion's own choices, the Holy See itself appointed two comparatively reform-minded priests to serve on the order's governing council, including the new No. 2. The Vatican said had intended to make its own appointments all along to help encourage trust in the new leadership.
The new general director is the Rev. Eduardo Robles Gil, a Mexican who was a longtime favorite of the Legion's disgraced late founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel. Legion priests who have left the order called him a "spiritual son" of Maciel and say his election shows no break from the order's troubled past.
Robles Gil said Thursday he adopted as his own a statement issued by the Legion in which it distanced itself from Maciel, apologized to his victims, acknowledged its own problems and vowed to reform.
The Vatican took over the Legion after a Vatican investigation determined that Maciel had lived a double life. He had sexually abused his seminarians and fathered at least three children with two women.
Despite having received reports for decades about Maciel's duplicity and allegations that he was a drug addict who sodomized his seminarians, Vatican officials held him up as a model for the faithful as the Legion brought in vocations and donations.
Then-Pope Benedict XVI ordered a wholesale reform and "purification" of the cult-like order in 2010 after determining that it had been infected by Maciel's influence.
A papal envoy, Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, has been overseeing the reform process and a weeks-long general assembly that resulted in the election. It took place on Jan. 20, but the results were only approved by the Vatican on Thursday.
Usually the Holy See doesn't approve elections of religious orders, allowing congregations to choose their own leaders. But the Legion case is unique.
Asked about the Vatican's decision to appoint its own counselors, a Legion spokesman, the Rev. Benjamin Clariond, said: "We are grateful for the Holy Father's decision to appoint the vicar general and a general counselor. We see it as a motherly gesture."
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the Holy See from the start had intended to appoint two of the counselors specifically to "consolidate trust in the new government even from those who might have doubted the results of a completely autonomous election by the members of the chapter."
"It should thus be read in a positive sense and not as a correction after-the-fact of the results of an autonomous election," he said in an email.
Clariond added that all the names of elected officers that the Legion submitted to the Vatican were approved.
The Rev. John Stegnicki, a former Legion priest now working in the archdiocese of Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, said the outcome of the election was "disappointing" but predictable, given the priests voting were by and large Maciel confidants or their protégés.
"Who else could they choose from? All of them are entrenched in Legion-think," he said.
In an email, he said the decision by the Holy See to appoint its own governing counselors was a "balancing act ... an attempt to keep the peace in the Legion and avoid more from abandoning the LC."
The two men appointed by the Vatican include the Rev. Juan Sabadell, who recently penned a very personal apology to victims of Maciel, begging forgiveness for having not believed them and for having defended the Legion's reputation unquestioningly.
The new superior, Robles Gil, on the other hand, recently played down the departure of the reform-minded former Legion No. 2 by saying the priest was leaving for health reasons. The priest later penned a missive saying he was leaving because his efforts to reform the Legion were in vain.
The 60-odd priests who are taking part in the General Chapter issued a repentant apology on Thursday, acknowledging the "shortcomings" of Legion superiors who refused to tell the truth about Maciel, even though they knew he had fathered a child.
The statement also apologized to the original victims of Maciel, who were defamed by the Legion and accused of having lied when in fact they had been sexually abused by "Nuestro Padre," as the members called Maciel.
Juan Vaca, who was sexually abused by Maciel for years, said he was waiting for more.
"Seventy-three years of fraud, contaminated by severe personality disorders of the founder, and imbued by institutionalized lying and duplicity, cannot be deleted by just meetings of a General Chapter and by the subsequent communique," he said in an email to AP.
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