In 1941, an ambitious Mexican priest named Marcial Maciel founded a traditionalist religious order called the Legion of Christ. Since then, Maciel has built the order into an international presence in the Catholic Church, boasting 2,500 seminarians and 600 priests across five continents, including 400 seminarians and 90 priests in the United States alone.
Yet there is compelling evidence, outlined in the book "Vows of Silence," that Maciel may have sexually abused many boys who entered the order as children. Several of his victims say that Maciel told them Pope Pius XII had given him a special dispensation to engage in sex to relieve chronic pain.
The authors, Jason Berry, a journalistic pioneer who exposed sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in the 1980s, and Gerald Renner, the former religion writer for The Hartford Courant, make a strong case that Maciel was a serial predator who should have been cast aside long ago but who remained immune to credible accusations because of his clout inside the Vatican of Pope John Paul II.
Among Maciel's staunchest defenders closer to home is Mary Ann Glendon, the Harvard Law School professor whom the pope promoted in March to be the highest-ranking female adviser to the Vatican. Glendon, like other Maciel allies, describes the allegations made by nine former priests and seminarians as slander from disaffected people who left the order embittered.
Berry and Renner paint a portrait of a clueless, isolated Catholic hierarchy that is Orwellian in its absurd embrace of dubious figures like Maciel and its paranoid rejection of good priests like Tom Doyle, the Dominican canon lawyer who was ignored in 1985 when he warned the Vatican that it had to do more about abusive priests, and who was targeted for retribution when he began openly siding with victims. The pope's blindness to the scandal stands in contrast to his noble efforts to acknowledge the corrosive effects of anti-Semitism and authoritarianism as practiced by communists.
"Why did the pontiff most sophisticated in using mass media fail to resolve a crisis so damaging to the church?" the authors ask rhetorically. "The most charitable answer is that John Paul saw no crisis because he had no contact with victims. He cared about them in the abstract; but his vision of the church's purifying truth held no room for a fearless introspection of the clerical state."
The book is an outgrowth of an investigative piece about Maciel and the Legion of Christ that Berry and Renner wrote for the Courant in 1997. Beyond the individual stories of Maciel and Doyle, which have little to do with each other, the book lays the blame for the crisis not at the feet of bishops who enabled abusers by moving them from parish to parish, but at the foot of the Holy See.
Maciel and Doyle are intriguing characters, if for different reasons. Juxtaposing their careers as a storytelling device, however, seems forced, because one has little to do with the other. But the basic claim is this: Under Pope John Paul II, enablers and even alleged perpetrators like Maciel are rewarded, while whistleblowers like Doyle get punished.
Maciel's vocation has been to construct a myth around his own life. Much of his autobiography is patently untrue. But then, the authors say, his role model was not Christ, but Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator. He seems bent on sainthood. At a 1992 beatification ceremony, Maciel instructed aides to delay his own canonization process until 30 years after his death. That he could even be considered for canonization, given the accusations, seems more an indictment of the Vatican than it is of Maciel.
For all his problems, Maciel was a genius in fund-raising, particularly adept at putting the arm on wealthy patrons. He also put a premium on keeping dirty laundry out of view. While many orders require members to take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, Maciel insisted that Legion of Christ members take a fourth vow: never to speak ill of him, and to inform on those who did.
The quest for justice by the men who say Maciel abused them is ultimately a farce, as they confront a secretive, unaccountable system that seems more perturbed at those making the charges than the substance of the allegations.
Doyle, a populist priest whose plain speaking belies a fierce intelligence, has become a hero to sexual abuse survivors, and to thousands of Catholics who are appalled at the cover-up of such crimes and the callous treatment of their victims.
Berry and Renner put flesh on the priest who is known to so many victims, lawyers, and journalists through his ubiquitous e-mail messages. As Doyle sees it, a false sense of superiority lay at the root of the problem.
The authors return regularly to their theme that it is the pope, not callous bishops and callow priests, who deserve the blame for the crisis.
"His myopia on the church's corruption suggests the kind of hubris we associate with kings in Shakespearean drama, coupled with a tragic naivete about sexual intimacy," they write in an epilogue. "Instead of squarely facing the sexual revolution inside the priesthood, asking why so many good men left and others refused to enter, John Paul sanctioned the punishment of scholarly priests and intellectuals who asked the hard questions and argued for honesty and structural change."
The authors make an intelligent, passionate case, and they seem to be on the side of the angels. But precisely because Vatican secrecy denies them the sort of corroborative evidence contained, say, in the court files of abusive priests in the Boston Archdiocese, their charges against the pope are more argumentative than proven.