I asked Legion of Christ Father Thomas Williams, an American who has held various leadership positions in Rome for his order, including as dean of theology for its pontifical university, to comment on the future direction of the Legion in the wake of its recent admission of unspecified failings on the part of its founder, Father Marcial Maciel.
Father Williams is familiar to many American television viewers as an analyst for CBS and formerly for NBC. He's also authored a number of theology books.
Here are his responses via email this morning:
Our Sunday Visitor: It cannot have been easy for the Legion to acknowledge flaws in the founder. What precipitated it now?
Father Thomas Williams, L.C.: Shortly after the Vatican's communique of May 19, 2006 [requiring Father Maciel to retire to a private life of penitence and prayer] Father Alvaro Corcuera [Father Maciel's successor as head of the order] began an internal investigation of the charges lodged against Father Maciel. In this investigation, he discovered that Father Maciel had fathered a child, who is now in her early 20s.
OSV: In the public statements so far from the U.S. and Rome spokesmen for the Legion, there has been acknowledgement of the discovery of “surprising and difficult to understand” facts about Father Maciel’s life that were “inappropriate” for a Catholic priest. Leaks from LC/RC sources indicate that those “facts” include at least the fathering of a child. But swirling around are also the original accusations of sexual abuse of seminarians, and revived rumors of drugs and inappropriate use of congregation funds. If the “facts” discovered by the LC leadership were limited only to the mistress, one would think the Legion would make that clear. (The “rights of privacy” argument advanced by Father Scarafoni yesterday frankly rings a little hollow; it is not like the Legion needs to provide names, addresses and phone numbers of those involved.) So is it fair to read the statements as an acknowledgement that some or all of the other allegations are true, or at least suspected?
Father Williams: During the investigation it became clear that some of the charges were patently false (contradiction of dates and places, etc.) while others seemed plausible and even likely. Obviously it is never possible to know for sure what happened in the past. I do not know which of the accusations were more likely true, but what seems evident is that some of them must indeed be true.
OSV: A spokesman has already said that the congregation would not “renounce” Father Maciel as some reports had suggested. I realize there is little precedent in the history of religious congregations to imitate, but does that mean that there will be no distancing at all from the founder? Will his writings still be read as before? Will his picture remain on the wall? Will he still be called Nuestro Padre?
Father Williams: We have already begun moving his pictures from the walls. Regarding his writing, it is more complicated since they represent an integral part of the charism of the order, which the Church has approved as authentic.
OSV: On a related note, for the purposes of carrying on the charism of the Legion, how does the congregation do that considering the founder apparently led a double life? How can his teachings on the charism be reliable?
Father Williams: We have the assurance of the Church's magisterium to rely on. A number of cardinals have stepped forward to encourage us to remain strong and keep moving forward, despite the tremendous difficulties.
OSV: How was Father Maciel able to lead a double life in a religious community? Were there those on the leadership team who were aware of his sinful behavior? Do you expect that they could be disciplined?
Father Williams: Usually in both civil and religious life subjects are not responsible for the actions of their superiors, while the other may be the case. I was close to Father Maciel for years and never saw anything that made me suspicious of his activities. I think these revelations have been a shock for all Legionaries.
OSV: A U.S. canon lawyer, Ed Peters, has argued that for the Legion to move into the future in a healthy way, it should invite an apostolic visitation and thorough housecleaning. Is this likely, or at least on the table?
Father Williams: I don't know.
OSV: Is there any consideration at all to dissolve the congregation and refound?
Father Williams: None whatsoever.