By Joshua S. Howes Tribune staff reporter Published July 17, 2003
Depending on one’s point of view, the Legion of Christ’s visit to Chicago this weekend is either cause for celebration and religious recommitment or an insult to the Roman Catholic community, especially survivors of sexual abuse by the clergy.
The Rome-based order of priests, whose founder has faced allegations of sexual abuse but is said to be a personal friend of Pope John Paul II, will hold a Youth and Family Encounter from Thursday afternoon through Sunday at Navy Pier.
The agenda includes speeches, masses, apostolic training seminars and a keynote address by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Organizers say they intend to renew participants’ spiritual drive and commitment to the faith, particularly for teenagers who might be confused by “all the negative headlines recently” about the Catholic Church.
But controversy has followed the Legion to Chicago. On Saturday the group announced that its 83-year-old founder, Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, will not attend the Navy Pier conference, which requires registration to attend, because of urgent business in Rome.
The Legion’s chorus of critics, led by former priests, say Maciel is ducking out to escape further scrutiny regarding allegations made in 1997 by nine former Legionaries that Maciel molested them when they were teenage seminarians in Italy and Spain in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Maciel also skipped last year’s conference in Baltimore.
A spokesman for the Legion, Jim Fair, dismissed the accusations against Maciel and the organization, saying the Vatican looked into the allegations and found no evidence of abuse.
Critics say the investigation was flawed and incomplete. They allege top Vatican officials protect Maciel because of his fundraising abilities, conservative politics and friendship with the pope.
To the group’s opponents, the Chicago conference is objectionable whether or not Maciel attends.
“To place Maciel, or his organization, as a model for the youth in Chicago or anywhere, my God, that is an aberration,” said Arturo Jurado of Monterey, Calif., a former priest who contends Maciel sexually molested him in 1957.
Others say the Legion’s leaders manipulate priests and seminarians into a cult-like devotion to Maciel. In addition to the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, Legionaries take a vow never to criticize or question the order.
Former seminarian Todd Carpunky, now a Chicago lawyer, said he worries that the conference’s unstated goal is to recruit teenagers. The archdiocese of Chicago, he says, should warn young Catholics about the Legion’s recruiting and control techniques.
Warning from ex-member
Carpunky said that after he joined a Legion seminary in Connecticut at age 16 in 1991, his superiors censored his mail and reading material, lied to him when other members left the seminary, encouraged him to flagellate himself and for months refused permission to see a doctor when he was suffering from a gall bladder infection that spread to his liver and almost killed him.
“The archdiocese and the church in general know what the Legion does,” he said. “We are their flock, and [the Legion] are the wolves preying on their flock, and they’re doing nothing about it.”
Legion supporters say such accusations are groundless and the product of disgruntled ex-Legionaries.
Fair, the group’s spokesman, said similar charges of abuse were brought against St. Francis of Assisi when he founded the Franciscans and many other founders of religious orders.
“With success and growth comes calumny and slander; it’s an almost consistent pattern across the board,” said Fair.
A spokesman for the Chicago archdiocese said the Legionaries are not within its jurisdiction. “The Catholic Church is a big tent,” said James Dwyer. “A wide variety of Catholic organizations meet in Chicago, and just because they do does not imply endorsement of what they do … nor condemnation.”
Cardinal not attending
Cardinal Francis George does not plan to attend the conference, Dwyer said.
Organizers of the event say more than 6,000 Chicago-area residents have registered to attend, many of them members of the Legion’s international lay movement, Regnum Christi, which they say has more than 60,000 members. The organizations also operate two K-through-12 schools and numerous outreach ministries in the Chicago area.
Scholars said the Legion’s evangelism and continued growth is consistent with the increase in the power and numbers of conservative Catholic organizations under Pope John Paul II.
“The [conservative movement] perceives itself to be under a threat that is growing, and is pushing back,” said Jay Demerath, a professor of sociology specializing in religion at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “I suspect [the Legion] is trying to send a message to American Catholics that traditions are important and need to be upheld … that all is not moving in a liberal direction.”
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