In recent months a string of sex abuse scandals have rocked the Vatican, the latest of which, broken by the Investigative Fund’s Jason Berry, prompted Pope Benedict XVI to issue what may be his most strongly worded — and penitent — statement to date. The remarks came on May 11th during the Pope’s visit to Portugal. He described recent revelations of abuse as “truly terrifying” and admitted that “forgiveness is not a substitute for justice.” To say the least, this was a departure from recent sentiment out of Rome.
This spring has been a difficult one for the Church—following allegations that Pope Benedict himself may have turned a blind eye to abuse during his tenure as Cardinal (a new lawsuit alleges the Pontiff and other officials refused to defrock a Wisconsin priest accused of molesting 200 boys at a school for the deaf in the 1950s and ‘60s), and the Investigative Fund’s finding that some of the most powerful priests in the prelate took bribes from a pedophile priest, the Vatican has been on the defensive. There was the Easter Sunday rebuke from former Secretary of State Angelo Soldano who sniffed at critics of the Church, saying “the people of God…do not let themselves be impressed by the gossip of the moment.” And there was one high priest’s bizarre claim that the fury over clergy sex abuse was comparable to the rages of Anti-Semitism. After a flurry of denials by church officials and tepid calls for penance (tempered with pointed criticism of the media and those who have accused the church of concealing abuse), the Pope’s unprecedented admission that the scandal assailing the Vatican was the result of “sin inside the Church” signaled to many that change may be afoot in the Holy See.
This is due in no small part to revelations made in Jason Berry’s piece in the National Catholic Reporter in April. The piece explored the secret life of Father Marcial Maciel, the leader of a Byzantine Catholic sect called the Legionaires of Christ. Maciel founded the order in the 1940s in Mexico, and quickly charmed the country’s rich and powerful, including President Miguel Alemán Valdés and later, Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man, into providing it with ample funds and influence. Today, the Legionaires of Christ is said to be worth close to $20 billion dollars. Maciel ran the organization with an iron first, silencing dissention with brutality and vows of silence, and using coercion and extortion to keep troublemakers in line. According to Berry, Father Maciel, a morphine addict, also sexually abused more than 20 seminarians, fathered multiple children with multiple partners, and systematically bribed his way into the inner circle of Rome’s holiest of priests.
Following the publication of Berry’s Ifund piece, the Vatican issued a verdict decrying Father Maciel’s conduct as “real crimes”, and stating that the priest had lived a life “devoid of…authentic religious sentiment.”
Berry’s piece was covered widely in the media. America, a weekly Jesuit publication, made Berry’s reporting the subject of their May 17th op-ed:
“For weeks we witnessed the hard issues of sexual abuse being dodged while elderly and past mistakes the focus of their attention. Intelligent leadership was obscured by a black cloud of flattery. As it turned out, some of these same prelates stood at the very heart of the crisis, accepting payments from friends, like the disgraced Marcial Maciel, and offering high-level support to bishops for stonewalling civil authorities. What appeared to be vigorous emotional support for the pope turned out to be smokescreens for their own unconscionable actions. In those trying weeks, we witnessed the Vatican at its worst — as the last Renaissance court.”
The Los Angeles Times also took note. The paper published an editorial highlighting ofAmerica’s op-ed, saying “the most striking feature of [America’s] analysis is that it marks the first recognition by an officially sanctioned church publication of revelations first reported by Jason Berry in the National Catholic Reporter.”
Impressed by our Ifund story, NPR’s Morning Edition interviewed Berry on April 20th. And Nation Books’ own Tim Johnson reported for McClatchy from Mexico on the scandal and fallout among young students at Legionnaires of Christ schools. Finally, we were honored that the incomparable Alma Guillermoprieto blogged on the story for The New York Review of Bookson May 17th, writing “of all the terrible sexual scandals the hierarchs in the Vatican find themselves tangled in, none is likely to do as much institutional damage as the astounding and still unfolding story of the Mexican priest Marcial Maciel.” She also cited Jason Berry’s reporting as a key turning point in the saga.