A scandal-tainted conservative Catholic religious movement whose founder was a sexual predator begins a series of meetings in Rome on Wednesday in what is being seen as a key test of Pope Francis's reform drive.
members of the Legionaries of Christ are meeting to reform their
congregation and elect a new leadership in their first meetings since
they were put under Vatican oversight in 2010 after the scandals first
"Pope Francis faces the first major challenge, the
first major clash of his pontificate," said Jesus Bastante, a columnist
for the Spanish-language Vatican affairs website Religion Digital.
has called for a radical overhaul of the group and a Vatican-appointed
delegate, Italian cardinal Velasio De Paolis, will inaugurate the
proceedings with a mass and will take part in the discussions.
have been tensions between senior Legionaries in favour of the status
quo and De Paolis, whose mandate runs out at the meetings starting
"The Legion is not some internal issue to be discussed
and decided on exclusively by the Legionaries," Bastante said, adding
that the gravity of the scandals meant "the pope cannot be gentle".
Legionaries were once held up by late pope John Paul II as a model
because of their ability to gain new followers and encourage vocations
to the priesthood.
The group was founded by a Mexican priest,
Marcial Maciel, in 1941 and currently counts 953 priests and 70,000 lay
people among its members in 22 countries and is particularly strong in
North and South America.
Maciel, who died at the age of 88 in
2008, was revealed to have sexually abused seminarians and fathered at
least three children despite his vow of chastity.
He was also accused of abusing his own children.
Vatican has been criticized for failing to do enough despite reports
about Maciel's behaviour dating back to the 1980s which went public in
Maciel was only removed from leadership of the
movement by the Vatican in 2006 after John Paul II's death and the
crimes have cast a shadow over his pontificate.
'Authentic and profound renewal'
Felix Alarcon, 80, one of eight Legion priests who denounced Maciel's
abuses to John Paul II in the 1980s, told Religion Digital that the
"The Legion, such as we know it, should be eliminated," he said, adding that he hoped the pope "resolves this."
in June called for "an authentic and profound renewal" of the
congregation and has instituted a committee to look into the thousands
of child sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church.
Legionaries have in recent years embarked on a transparency drive and
internal investigations has revealed that a total of nine priests
committed child sex abuses while 10 more are still being investigated.
investigations brought to light other disturbing aspects of the
congregation, such as the personality cult surrounding Maciel and the
rules on secrecy instituted to ensure there were no whistleblowers.
support groups say the reforms so far are insufficient and complain
that senior members of the group from Maciel's time are still in place
and there is talk of the movement being disbanded altogether.
might say we're refounding," Sylvester Heereman, the German cleric
appointed as acting general director in 2012, said in an interview with
the National Catholic Register magazine in the run-up to the talks.
building on something that in a mysterious way has been very damaged by
the flaws of the founder and human nature but we stay because we
believe there's more to it than that," he said.
A total of 84
priests have left the congregation since 2010 and the number of
ordinations of Legionary priests have gone down from 60 in 2010 to 30 in
Heereman admitted that there were some Legionaries who
wanted a return to the past and were hurt by the criticism of the role
played by the founder.
The group's "extraordinary general
chapter" will continue for weeks, with no major announcements expected
before late January or February.