|Central American University - UCA
Number 369 | Abril 2012
Pope Benedict XVI visited Mexico for three days.
It was a trip full of silences and contradictions
in a country that has been lacerated by violence
caused by the war against drug trafficking.
Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Mexico at the end of March can be divided into three phases: the preparatory stage, the visit itself and the post-visit evaluation. In the first stage, the case of Mexicos’s deceased pedophile priest, Marcial Maciel, was very topical.
A logical expectation It was logically assumed that the pope would meet with victims of sexual abuse by the clergy, given that he had done so on his previous visits to the United States, Australia, France, Germany, Ireland, Portugal and Malta.
The exclusion of a meeting with Maciel’s victims from the papal agenda may have been due to the Legionaries’ influence on Mexico’s most powerful politicians as well as the Catholic hierarchy, given that Maciel was the founder of their organization, the Legion of Christ. Whatever the reason, silencing the subject was further proof of the network of complicity and cover-ups that protected him when he was alive and still protects him even today.
Reparation for the damage to Maciel’s victims implies not only fair compensation, but also rehabilitation and guarantees that what he did will not reoccur in any ecclesiastic setting. To date, we’ve seen nothing like that in Mexico. In an attempt to justify the lack of a meeting with Maciel’s victims on the papal agenda, Christophe Pierre, the papal puncio in Mexico, claimed that the pope would give a talk to a group of children. The Catholic episcopate then alleged that no such meeting had been requested, a fact refuted by Maciel’s accusers.
José Barba’s testimony El Universal, one of the most influential and widely read newspapers in Mexico, published an extensive article on the eve of the papal visit based on the testimony of an eminent and respected professor, José Barba, who had been abused by Maciel in his youth. Barba recalled that in January 2005, Maciel had been enthusiastically praised by the then-president of the Mexican episcopate, Guadalupe Martín Rábago—Benedict XVI’s host during this visit—and Bishop Onésimo Cepeda.
Barba also recalled that two years ago, incontrovertible testimonies from former Legionaries who had reported Maciel on different occasions forced the Vatican to concede that Maciel’s behavior was grievous and immoral. Those same ex-Legionaires then wrote to Bishop Ricardo Watty, who was rin hcarge of investigating the Legion’s crimes in Mexico, to present several demands. Given that Watty had accused them of being slanderers and conspirators, they insisted that he recognize their innocence in writing and that the Legion put aside its fictitious petitions for pardon and apologize to the former Legionaries abused by Maciel, giving their full names. Neither the Legion nor the Vatican ever responded to these demands.
El Universal’s story also reported that, despite Benedict XVI’s 2006 order that Maciel retire to a life of prayer and penance, he continued going to Europe’s most exclusive spas accompanied by his putative wife, daughter and members of the Legion’s leadership, facts corroborated by images from a Millennium TV program aired in September 2011.
Yet another front in addition to that of Maciel’s victims opened prior to the papal visit: the victims of the drug war.
“Love of the Father After Benedict XVI’s visit was announced, Javier Sicilia, Catholic poet and moral leader of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, was invited to attend the Mass the pope would celebrate in León, Guanajuato. Sicilia declined to participate in what he called a “media show” and announced that, instead, he would personally take a letter to the pope before his visit, in which he would talk to him not as a representative of the Vatican but as the Vicar of Christ.
and not of Caesar’s power”
In his letter, Sicilia told the pope about the victims suffering from President Calderón’s drug war and informed him how Mexico had been suffering the agony of an ongoing “Holy Week” for the past five years. He provided official statistics: 47,551 murdered in the most ruthless way, 20,000 missing and more than 250,000 displaced. According to Sicilia, 98% of the crimes have gone unpunished.
He added that Mexicans aren’t the only ones suffering in Calderón’s war; so are the Central Americans who cross Mexico in deplorable conditions as emigrants trying to find work in the US. “Mexico and Central America are today’s body of Christ, abandoned in the Garden of Gethsemane and crucified.” A body bombarded by crime, governmental omissions and serious corruption, by the weapons the US sells to criminals, by money laundering and, with few exceptions, by a Church hierarchy that keeps a complicit silence.
Sicilia reminded the pope that he represents the love of the Father and not the power of Caesar and warned him that, behind the media and political gloss they will put on for him in Mexico are thousands of people dead and suffering. For those reasons Sicilia asked him to embrace this “broken body of Christ that begs for a Father’s response, over and above political order and criminal chaos.”
Bishop Raúl Vera: Sicilia delivered his letter at the Vatican on March 22, where he was assured it would reach Benedict XVI’s hands. On his return, Sicilia said he was hopeful that the pope would give the victims of the drug war a message of solidarity and condemn this war and its accomplices. “If he doesn’t, the Church will lose credibility.”
Time to examine our conscience
One of the ecclesiastical exceptions Sicilia referred to in his letter is Bishop Raúl Vera who, before the visit, declared that the pope was coming to a fractured country and that his visit would force an examination of conscience. Vera was confident that the pope would have words of consolation for the victims of the drug war and said he was ashamed that his country is led by a self-proclaimed Catholic who, without law enforcement and in violation of human rights, is using the army to implement a strategy against street crime. He declared that the Church is also responsible for abandoning youth in this context of widespread violence.
Drug charity and drug chapels Certain aspects of Mexico’s omnipresent drug trafficking and organized crime involve ecclesiastical power, which is why, after the papal visit had already been announced, the Mexican Bishops’ Conference declared in a note that there would be no so-called “drug charity” in the event.
It has long been an open secret that many Mexican parishes receive donations from organized crime. In April 2007, the bishop of Aguascalientes justified it by saying that a woman anointed Jesus Christ with very costly perfume and that he received this homage without asking her where she got the money for something so expensive.
In 2008, the House of Representatives’ Center for Social Studies and Public Opinion acknowledged that it knows criminal organizations launder money by funding religious activities.
The case of a modest village chapel in Hidalgo became renowned in October 2010 for having been transformed into a luxurious church through donations from a leader of Las Zetas, whose name appears on a plaque in the church.
In November 2010 the Catholic hierarchy was forced to declare that in certain communities “the dirtiest and most bloody money may have been used” in the construction of some chapels, suggesting that this only happened with some small-town priests. The hierarchy also asked which state in Mexico or sector of society hasn’t already been infiltrated by drug trafficking. Given these statements, the National Fellowship of Evangelical Christian Churches asked the federal Attorney General’s Office to investigate donations from drug trafficking to the Catholic Church.
In January 2011, research led to proof
of drug money being used in hospitals, schools and Catholic churches in many parts of Mexico, while a researcher from the Monterrey Technological Institute noted that when the time came to investigate drug charity, the government’s “hand was shaking.” In March 2011 the archbishop of Puebla urged his priests not to accept drug money.
The arrival and the first gestures The pope arrived in the country on the afternoon of Friday, March 23, to an atmosphere ripe with expectations of statements and attitudes responding to Mexico’s harsh reality. On the flight he had said that the violence in Mexico is caused by the idolatry of money.
In his first speech, Benedict XVI simply praised Pope John Paul II, thanked President Calderón for his warm reception and specially mentioned Archbishop Rábago, his host, and the president of the Mexican Episcopal Conference. He referred to the bicentennial celebrations, spoke of the fundamental right to religious freedom and promised to pray “for those who suffer from old and new rivalries, resentments and forms of violence.” In his welcoming address, Calderón told the pope he was being received by a people who had suffered a lot from violence, although he obviously didn’t see himself as one of its causes.
The next day the pope met privately with Calderón. They spoke of the need for an international treaty on small arms, whose rapid and excessive spread favors organized crime, and also mentioned world hunger. Afterwards, the President took Benedict XVI to meet with several people, among them eight victims of the war, invited by Calderón for self-justification.
Although the press wanted to be present for this meeting with the war victims, the papal spokesperson, Federico Lombardi, explained that it was a general meeting and not specifically with the victims of violence. That same day the pope sent a message to a thousand children telling them how concerned the Catholic Church is about them, although he made no reference at all to the crimes of sexual abuse against children.
The pope’s achievement: On Sunday the 25th, before half a million Catholics, the pope celebrated a Mass attended by the Mexican elite and their presidential candidates for the July elections. As Guanajuato is a state with a preponderance of National Political Action Party (PAN) supporters, many present cheered Josefina Vázquez Mota, the PAN candidate. The pope ended the Mass with a prayer to the Virgin of Guadalupe for an end to the violence.
A constitutional reform
This is what the public saw. Privately, Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state, met with Mexico’s secretary of the interior in which he said that Mexico should guarantee religious freedom, meaning more than freedom of worship. Within days after the pope’s departure, with support from PAN and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and opposition from the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), the lawmakers passed a constitutional reform that opens the door to the Catholic Church having mass media and allowing religious instruction in public schools. The Bishops’ Conference acknowledged that Congress had consulted the bishops about this change and praised the importance of this advance in the understanding of religious freedom.
Pederasty: an ever-present issue The pope also addressed the Latin American Catholic hierarchs who had travelled to Mexico to greet him, telling them that they should take care of their seminarians and punish clergy who engage in “inappropriate attitudes.”
Upon leaving, the pope called on the Mexican people to be brave and “not be intimidated by the forces of evil.” Calderón asked him to take with him “the tears of those he had comforted,” hoping he had seen that the Mexican people weren’t without hope, despite the difficult circumstances.
Although the Vatican and the Mexican episcopate wanted to hide the serious problem of pederasty during the papal visit, the shadow of Maciel never left Benedict XVI. The Maciel case, although only the tip of the iceberg, is the most scandalous in Mexico and perhaps the whole world.
The subject of Maciel hasn’t stopped being topical, as new information and allegations come to light. A book appeared in 2011 by Nelly Ramírez Mota, a former nun consecrated with Regnum Christi, an international lay apostolic movement founded by Marcial Maciel and associated with the Legion of Christ. In her book, The Kingdom of Marcial Maciel: The hidden life of the Legion and Regnum Christi (Editorial Planeta), the author reveals the oppressive system he created and its vice-like grip based on mistrust and denunciation.
In March 2011, Richard Gill (for 29 years a Legion of Christ priest and long-time US director of Regnum Christi who left the Legion in 2010 and is now an incardinated priest in the New York Archdiocese) analyzed the impossibility of restoring the Legion. In his view, its members have internalized a culture creating a submissive and fearful mindset and making them evade the responsibilities of their superiors.
The scandals of the Legion’s founder and the fact that the same clique that covered up for him still directs the Legion has caused numerous priests, seminarians and consecrated nuns to desert. The Legion’s female branch has been seriously depleted. In early 2012, Malen Oriol—who was at Maciel’s deathbed and directed the consecrated women’s division of 600 women who live like nuns and work in the Legion’s schools, as well as in recruiting new members and fundraising—left the Legion, followed by 30 other women. Several declared that they wanted out of such a harmful and erroneous organization.
Willing ignoranceThe international press covering the papal visit knew all this. On Saturday March 24, a hundred foreign correspondents attended the presentation of the book published by Grijalbo, La voluntad de no saber (Willing ignorance) in León, just a few blocks from the residence where the pope was resting. Its authors, José Barba, Alberto Athié and Fernando González, are the three people best known for their struggle to unravel the truth about Maciel.
Athié left the priesthood when he saw how the Vatican nullified a case he was trying to defend of a former Legionary raped by Maciel. Barba, as mentioned above, is a former legionary who denounced Maciel for abusing him. And González is a university academic and Legionary specialist.
The 600-page book contains 212 previously unpublished documents from the Vatican’s archives showing that the Roman Curia knew about Maciel’s serious crimes as long ago as 40 years.
Bernardo Barranco, a specialist on religious subjects and meticulous researcher on the Catholic Church, who wrote the book’s prologue, defines the documents as specifically being “classified documents from the Vatican’s archives, especially from the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy [part of the Roman Curia responsible for overseeing matters regarding priests not belonging to religious orders, excluding sexual abuse cases, which are handled by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith]. He describes its publication as “part of the phenomenon of information leaks known as Vatileaks, which are compromising leaks about the Vatican’s burning issues.”
Irrefutable documents Barranco sees the book as a commitment to truth based on irrefutable documents. In the prologue he reflects on the responsibility of all those who defended and legitimized Maciel, noting that among the most enthusiastic was Mexico’s Archbishop Norberto Rivera. He emphasizes that the book’s major success is showing that Maciel’s behavior cannot be explained as the actions of a single man. He recalls that while Benedict XVI told Peter Seewald in his 2010 book Luz del mundo (Light of the World) that he had no reasons to check out accusations of Maciel’s pederasty until 2000, Vatican documents show that he knew of the case much earlier.
And if that’s true, how can it be explained that even in February 2001, with the reasons already apparent, he congratulated Maciel on his upcoming birthday and thanked him for favors, among them the collaboration of a Legionary, who served in the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then led by Ratzinger. That admission means that a Legion operator worked in the same offices that received the charges made against Maciel.
Many people believe Pope Benedict XVI speeded up John Paul II’s beatification Many people believe that Pope Benedict XVI speeded up John Paul II’s beatification so as to blur his predecessor’s and his own complicity in the protection of a pederast to blur his predecessor’s and his own complicity in the protection of a pederast. According to Barranco, if the documents published in the book had been taken into account in time, they could have called the beatification into question.
“The book says nothing new about Maciel; it just confirms what we all knew,” says Barranco, adding that the responsibility for restructuring the Legion now falls to Pope Benedict XVI and questioning his slow and lukewarm response to this task. He warns that testimonies showing many harmful practices relating to the Legion remain unchanged and that the Vatican and the Mexican episcopate owe Mexico a comprehensive and detailed public statement pinpointing accountability.
Freely accessible documentsWith this book, researcher Fernando González puts many documents into the readers’ hands. He explains that evidence in the files from the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the secretary of state and the pope’s personal files prove John Paul II’s knowledge of the case.
The documentation also incriminates the Legion’s high-ranking officials for blocking information they had about their founder’s behavior. González shreds the current Vatican strategy that tries to present John Paul II as one of Maciel’s victims.
González also clarified that the pontifical vicar appointed to reform the Legion protected Maciel’s accomplices and censured the Legion’s dissidents, expressing contempt for them and for Maciel’s victims. Although he believes many Legionaries have no responsibility for the actions of the Legion’s founder, they acquire responsibility if they support the current version of what happened. For anyone interested in reading the 212 documents in the book, thetys are freely available on www.lavoluntaddenosaber.com
An important timeline José Barba offers the reader an important timeline. On December 8, 1997, former Legionaries published an accusatory letter. On January 13, 1998, the original of this letter was delivered to the apostolic nuncio in Mexico City and the nuncio promised to turn it directly over to Pope John Paul II. On October 17, 1998, the report against Maciel was delivered to the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
On February 18, 1999, the letter was presented to that Congregation, presided over by Cardinal Ratzinger. On May 18, 2001, in the light of these charges, Ratzinger made canonic changes that favored Maciel, prescribing crimes until then classified as exempt from prescription. On November 11, 2002, a letter of complaint in Spanish and Polish was given to John Paul II’s personal secretary. These documents show that the Vatican was fully informed about Maciel’s criminal behavior.
Why no mea culpa?The unveiling of the book was presided over by the journalist Carmen Aristegui, who said that the pope should issue a “liberating mea culpa” in the name of the Church, although she assumed this gesture was stymied because the pope himself was involved.
Athié charged that the reason the Vatican didn’t act on so much evidence was that Maciel had bought protection at the highest levels of the Roman Curia.
Fernando González pointed out that the Vatican had opted to “make disappear, euphemize, protect, silence and transfigure” a history of allegations. He thus considers it regrettable that the pope remained silent about ecclesiastical pederasty during his visit to Mexico, the country where Maciel was born, founded his organization and chose his victims and where those who denounced his crimes live.
José Barba couldn’t attend the presentation because he was convalescing, but he sent a video. As a Maciel victim in his youth, he says on the tape that what the victims want is for the truth to come to light so that behavior like Maciel’s will never happen again.
Commenting on the recent book In defense of the Pope, by Vatican apologists Andrea Tornielli and Paolo Rodari, about the palatial conspiracies against Benedict XVI, researcher Bernardo Barranco said it adds nothing new.
He instead advises reading the documented book Render unto Rome by investigative journalist Jason Berry, which reveals the high levels of corruption in the Roman Curia by following up on compensation for sexual abuse that the Catholic Church has had to give in various countries. Berry analyzes how Marcial Maciel corrupted the Curia so it would cover up his crimes.
“We don’t know who they are”Maciel’s wasn’t the only case. Victims of sexual abuse committed by other clergy in Mexico—who have formed a Network of Survivors of Sexual Abuse by Priests—expressed sorrow that their request to meet with the pope was ignored. They handed in their request for an audience to the nuncio’s office seven days before the pope’s arrival. The reason for not responding offered by Carlos Aguiar Retes, the president of the Mexican episcopate, was pitiful: “We can’t take leadership of something we know nothing about. Until the victims appear, we don’t know their faces; we don’t know who they are… They are only visible for the media.”
The cardinal emeritus of Guadalajara, Juan Sandoval, had already made a disparaging remark about the victims, saying it was to be expected that what he called “the usual tune” would be heard again in the context of a papal visit. The pope’s spokesperson, Federico Lombardi, gave an even more flimsy explanation: the pope didn’t need to meet with victims of sexual abuse by the clergy on every one of his trips.
Religious bipolarityJavier Sicilia said the members of his Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity had felt unheeded because the pope had been insensitive to their position, preferring to side with the political elite and the high clergy rather than listen to the victims of pederast priests and of the violence caused by Calderon’s drug war.
Sicilia said that ever since the Church became an imperialist religion, it had joined “the poor man from Nazareth,” as Father Larrañaga Ignacio called him, together with Caesar.
Miguel Concha, former provincial superior of the Dominican Order, also regretted the pope’s silences about the victims of violence and pederasty.
Various citizens’ organizations criticized the spending of public money on the papal visit. Other critics called the coverage of the visit by Mexico’s Televisa repetitive, sentimental, poor and inconsequential, without allowing for the viewpoints of Catholic Church scholars with critical positions. Televisa is the largest multimedia corporation in the Spanish-speaking world, much of whose programming also airs in the United States on Univision.
Religious studies specialist Bernardo Barranco—who expressed some criticism of the CNN Spanish edition’s coverage—said it was hard to understand the pope’s silences. He summarized the trip as an expression of “religious bipolarity: a honeyed Christian speech on the one hand, and acts and facts on the other,” referring to dramatic facts that media triumphalism found impossible to eclipse.
A success? Although the government and the Catholic hierarchy wanted to sell the visit as successful and smooth, the international press was aware of this visit’s severe contradictions, among them Maciel’s ominous shadow, which accompanied the pope’s movements. It is just another expression of the dark side of the Church’s history, built by its elites’ discrepancies.
Nonetheless, as always throughout history, there’s potential for hope in this church’s base, which draws its vitality from the example and the liberating, committed teachings of one who denounced the elites of his day: Jesus of Nazareth.
Jorge Alonso is a researcher for Western CIESAS and the envío correspondent in Mexico.