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Vatican reportedly drops probe of Mexican cleric

Legion of Christ says priest won't be tried on abuse allegations

MEXICO CITY -- The Mexican founder of the Legion of Christ, an influential Roman Catholic order, will not face a church trial on allegations that he sexually abused young seminarians in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, according to the Legion and news reports citing a Vatican spokesman.

In December, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith opened a full-scale investigation into the allegations by eight former seminarians against the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the 85-year-old founder of the Legion of Christ. In April, a Catholic Church prosecutor, Charles J. Scicluna, traveled to the United States and Mexico to take testimony from dozens of former Legionaries, according to the co-accusers.

But on Friday, the Legion announced that it had been told by the Holy See that no charges would be brought against Maciel, adding that the priest ''unambiguously affirmed his innocence." A Vatican spokesman confirmed yesterday that the investigation had ended, and that there were no plans to reopen it, according to the Associated Press. Efforts by a Boston Globe reporter to obtain comment from the Vatican yesterday were unsuccessful.

''Father Maciel is exonerated, and the Holy See has found nothing upon which to begin any kind of canonical process," Jay Dunlap, the Legion's spokesman, said yesterday. He added that Maciel was ''just grateful for the victory of truth and to be able to get on with the business of his priesthood."

The news was met with skepticism by the co-accusers -- mostly Mexicans in their 60s and 70s -- whose meetings with Scicluna had raised their hopes that the case would go to trial before the Vatican's Tribunal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

''How is it possible that a case that is so serious and that has waited half a century, and was investigated by two members of the Holy See, would suddenly be thrown out with no word from the Congregation of the Faith?" said Jose Barba Martin, a Latin American studies professor in Mexico City and one of the co-accusers in the case.

Barba said that he spoke with the group's lawyer in Rome, Martha Wegan, and that she did not have any information ''either official or unofficial" that the case had been closed.

If the Vatican did end the investigation, he said, ''the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would have treated us with total disdain, and with a total lack of concern for our human rights."

The case, the first to involve the founder of a prominent Roman Catholic order, has threatened to bring the scandal over pedophilia in the Catholic Church to a new level. Since Maciel founded the order in 1941, it has mushroomed into a worldwide order with some 650 priests in 20 countries. Maciel was also a personal favorite of the late Pope John Paul II, who praised him as an ''efficacious guide to youth" during a trip to Mexico in 1994. In November, the pope lauded Maciel's work during a celebration marking the 60th anniversary of the Mexican priest's ordination.

Days later, however, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, ordered the investigation into the allegations of sex abuse against Maciel. Last month, Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI.

It is not the first time the Vatican has investigated Maciel. Between 1956 and 1959, he was suspended from duties while high-level church officials looked into allegations of drug abuse and other issues. However, it is not clear whether pedophilia was among the charges against him at the time. Maciel was acquitted, said Dunlap, the order's spokesman.

The former Legionaries were hoping that Maciel would be tried for violating the sacrament of penance, by allegedly absolving his students with whom he committed sexual acts. They say Maciel had told them he had special permission from the pope to perform sexual acts, to help relieve stomach pain. He then allegedly forced his students, some of whom were as young as 10, into sexual acts.

Alejandro Espinosa, a Mexican rancher who is another of the co-accusers, was more skeptical regarding news that the case had been closed.

He said that Scicluna had told him he planned to carry out further interviews in Ireland, and possibly return to Mexico, and that it was unlikely that he had finished investigating.

''We saw in Scicluna a person who was totally determined to carry out this investigation and to bring it to its ultimate conclusion, which was to bring it to trial," he said in a telephone interview from northern Tamaulipas State.

''He gave us very explicit guarantees, and we believed him."

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