WASHINGTON -- After a decade-long investigation of sex abuse allegations, Pope Benedict XVI has taken disciplinary action against the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, an elderly Mexican priest who was close to Pope John Paul II and is venerated by many Catholics around the world, a Catholic newspaper reported yesterday.
In a dispatch from Rome, the National Catholic Reporter said the pope has restricted Maciel's capacity to celebrate public Masses, to give lectures or other public presentations, and to speak to the news media.
The action ''amounts to a finding that at least some of the accusations against the charismatic 86-year-old Mexican priest are well-founded," NCR's Vatican correspondent John L. Allen Jr. wrote, calling Maciel ''perhaps the highest-profile priest in the Catholic church to be disciplined for allegations of sexual abuse."
Vatican officials contacted by the
Maciel is founder of the Legion of Christ, a worldwide order of more than 650 priests and 2,500 seminarians, and of Regnum Christi, an affiliated movement of lay people that says it has 70,000 members around the world.
Both groups are built around the aging priest's ''charism," a church term for exceptional spiritual gifts and mission. Thus, a finding that he was not an exemplar of purity, but rather a serial abuser of boys as young as 10, could be devastating to his following.
''The real question the Vatican now faces is what do you do about the Legion, an organization that is founded on a lie, a myth about the founder," said Jason Berry, coauthor of a 2004 book and forthcoming documentary film, both titled ''Vows of Silence," about the Maciel case.
Jay Dunlap, a spokesman for the Legion of Christ, said the organization would have no comment pending a formal Vatican statement.
The Legion and its supporters have long maintained that Maciel is an innocent victim of a conspiracy by people opposed to his doctrinal conservatism. In 2002, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the Catholic journal First Things, wrote that ''after a scrupulous examination of the claims and counter-claims, I have arrived at a moral certainty that the charges are false and malicious."
The complaints of sexual abuse came to light in the 1990s, when nine former members of the Legion, including several priests, charged that Maciel had molested them from the 1940s to the '60s.
They filed the allegations with church authorities, rather than in civil courts, and the Vatican began an investigation. But it was halted in 1999 by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict. The case was reopened in 2004.