Disgraced Catholic order vows to turn page on abuse with new norms

The new leader of the disgraced Legionaries of Christ Catholic religious order, whose founder was a serial sexual abuser, has promised to turn a page as the group enacted new norms to protect children.

Father John Conner, 51, an American who was elected this month as superior general, announced the changes on Wednesday night as he wrapped up a general chapter attended by 66 representatives from around the world.

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”.

The chapter approved documents outlining commitments for the protection of minors and vulnerable adults and for reckoning with its scandalous past.

The Legionaries formally retract criticisms made in past smear campaigns against 11 whistle-blowers who tried to expose abuse by Mexican founder Father Marcial Maciel.

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 acknowledging Maciel’s abuse in 2006, and details about his most notorious misdeeds did not emerge until after his death in 2008.

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 he had built a cult-like organisation where sexual abuse and abuse of power by superiors was rife.

The order currently has about 1,500 priests and seminarians and 22,500 lay members.

Former Pope Benedict resisted calls from some in the Church who said the order should be dissolved because it was toxic to the core. The Vatican instead took over the order in 2010 and began a process of reform.

The new norms promise a “rapid response” to any claim of inappropriate behaviour, more background checks for candidates for the priesthood, internal tribunals, an option for alleged victims to be heard by outside authorities, and a commitment to see the media not as enemies but “allies in making reparation for wrong and bringing about the good”.

They also pledge to lobby the Vatican to defrock those convicted of abuse, to cooperate with civil authorities, and to not impose confidentiality clauses in agreements unless requested by victims.

After Maciel’s death, Vatican investigations found that he had fathered several children with at least two women, visited them regularly and sent them money. He also used drugs.

Former members have said the order was run like a cult, with rules forbidding any criticism of the founder or questioning of his motives.

They said Maciel gave huge contributions to the Vatican during the papacy of John Paul, who admired the Legionaries’ orthodoxy and ability to produce vocations.

The Catholic Church around the world is still struggling to come to grips with the worldwide crisis, which involves cases of abuse dating back to decades ago.

It has devastated the Church’s credibility and dented its coffers. About two dozen dioceses in the United States alone have filed for bankruptcy because of mounting lawsuits.

A number of U.S. states have also changed statutes of limitations law enabling victims to file for damages for abuse that occurred decades ago.