A scandal-tainted conservative Catholic religious movement whose founder was a sexual predator begins a series of meetings in Rome on Wednesday in what is being seen as a key test of Pope Francis's reform drive.
Top members of the Legionaries of Christ are meeting to reform their congregation and elect a new leadership in their first meetings since they were put under Vatican oversight in 2010 after the scandals first exploded. "Pope Francis faces the first major challenge, the first major clash of his pontificate," said Jesus Bastante, a columnist for the Spanish-language Vatican affairs website Religion Digital.
Francis has called for a radical overhaul of the group and a Vatican-appointed delegate, Italian cardinal Velasio De Paolis, will inaugurate the proceedings with a mass and will take part in the discussions. There have been tensions between senior Legionaries in favour of the status quo and De Paolis, whose mandate runs out at the meetings starting Wednesday. "The Legion is not some internal issue to be discussed and decided on exclusively by the Legionaries," Bastante said, adding that the gravity of the scandals meant "the pope cannot be gentle".
The Legionaries were once held up by late pope John Paul II as a model because of their ability to gain new followers and encourage vocations to the priesthood. The group was founded by a Mexican priest, Marcial Maciel, in 1941 and currently counts 953 priests and 70,000 lay people among
its members in 22 countries and is particularly strong in North and South America.
Maciel, who died at the age of 88 in 2008, was revealed to have sexually abused seminarians and fathered at least three children despite his vow of chastity. He was also accused of abusing his own children. The Vatican has been criticised for failing to do enough despite reports about Maciel's behaviour dating back to the 1980s which went public in the 1990s. Maciel was only removed from leadership of the movement by the Vatican in 2006 after John Paul II's death and the crimes have cast a shadow over his pontificate. Father Felix Alarcon, 80, one of eight Legion priests who denounced Maciel's abuses to John Paul II in the 1980s, told Religion Digital that the congregation.
"The Legion, such as we know it, should be eliminated," he said, adding that he hoped the pope "resolves this". Francis in June called for "an authentic and profound renewal" of the congregation and has instituted a committee to look into the thousands of child sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church.
The Legionaries have in recent years embarked on a transparency drive and internal investigations has revealed that a total of nine priests committed child sex abuses while 10 more are still being investigated. The investigations brought to light other disturbing aspects of the congregation, such as the personality cult surrounding Maciel and the rules on secrecy instituted to ensure there were no whistleblowers. Victim support groups say the reforms so far are insufficient and complain that senior members of the group from Maciel's time are still in place and there is talk of the movement being disbanded altogether.
"You might say we're refounding," Sylvester Heereman, the German cleric appointed as acting general director in 2012, said in an interview with the National Catholic Register magazine in the run-up to the talks. "We're building on something that in a mysterious way has been very damaged by the flaws of the founder and human nature but we stay because we believe there's more to it than that," he said. A total of 84 priests have left the congregation since 2010 and the number of ordinations of Legionary priests have gone down from 60 in 2010 to 30 in 2013.
Heereman admitted that there were some Legionaries who wanted a return to the past and were hurt by the criticism of the role played by the founder. The group's "extraordinary general chapter" will continue for weeks, with no major announcements expected before late January or February.