The Demon at the Center of the Roman Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal

IN THE POPULAR IMAGINATION, the Catholic Church’s three greatest crimes include the Spanish Inquisition, the condemnation of Galileo Galilei, and, of course, the more recent molestation of children by priests. For each of these crimes, the name of one man is usually consigned to infamy: For the Spanish Inquisition, there was Tomás de Torquemada, for the condemnation of Galileo, Robert Bellarmine, and for the molestation of children, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado is the name that shall be remembered.

Before Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ascended the papal throne in 2005 as Pope Benedict XVI, he had been investigating the disturbing case of a wayward priest named Father Marcial Maciel. When Benedict XVI started his papacy, he promised to cleanse the Church of the “filth”—likely a direct reference to Maciel.

From the early-1970s until his death in 2008, Maciel had abused a multiplicity of minors and fathered six children by three different wives.

Although the name “Marcial Maciel” is not a household name in the United States, it certainly is amongst those in Latin countries, where Maciel is seen as the face of the Catholic Church’s child sex abuse scandal. In the United States, the media focused more on the priests and other clergymen who had committed acts of sex abuse in American cities, such as Boston and Philadelphia, so Maciel did not receive as much coverage there.

Who is Father Marcial Maciel?

Born in 1920, Maciel came from a prominent Roman Catholic family in Mexico. Four of his uncles were bishops. They primed Maciel for service in the Catholic Church since he was a child. However, he was “expelled from two seminaries for unexplained reasons,”1 and it was only through his uncles’ influence that he eventually got ordained as a priest at all.

Largely through the influence of his family and Francisco Gonzalez Arias, Bishop of Cuernavaca, Maciel founded the Legion of Christ in 1941, a Roman Catholic religious institute for seminarians. However, in 1956, he encountered yet another reprimand from the Roman Catholic administration—this time, from the Pope: “Pope Pius XII removed [Maciel] as the director of the Legionaries of Christ when it was discovered that Maciel had a morphine addiction”1. Pope Pius XII’s removal of Maciel is clear evidence that the Church had recognized Maciel’s wickedness early on, but, because Maciel had manipulated his legionaries to lie on his behalf and also, because Pope Pius XII had died in 1958, Maciel eventually managed to get exonerated under Pope John Paul II and, later, would turn into the monster that his position as the founder of the Legionaries of Christ allowed him to become.

Juan Vaca and Maciel, Courtesy of La Jornada

During his tenure as the head of the Legionaries of Christ, Maciel abused countless boys as young as six years old. He also fathered six children from three different wives and, according to his own son’s testimony, “All the days that we [children] stayed with him—on every trip—there were abuses”8.

Juan Vaca, another victim and former member of the Legionaries of Christ, recounts his earliest memory of abuse by Marcial Maciel in a PBS Frontline interview:

A colleague of mine said that the Father wants you to go to his bedroom… “To his bedroom?” I asked. —To me, as a child, I think that’s very strange. So anyway, I went to his bedroom—he was already in bed—and he took my hand and said, “Please, give me a massage in [sic] my stomach because I have a terrible pain.” He said, “lower, lower,” and finally, I was touching his penis and he got an erection. I felt completely petrified. I was in shock. And, after a few seconds, I felt his semen on my hand… He then said, “I feel much better. You can go.”8

Such abuses would continue in Maciel’s Legion of Christ for decades.

The Role of Pope John Paul II & the Vatican’s Response

In 1976, Juan Vaca sent a letter to the Vatican indicating that Maciel had abused him as well well as 21 of his colleagues. Vaca also indicated in the same letter that Maciel had expropriated funds from the Legion of Christ’s coffers as a means of supporting his own extravagant lifestyle and bribing police and doctors in Mexico City.

Vaca received no response from the administration of the then-Pope John Paul II—a silence that would effectively permit Maciel to continue his abuses for many decades to come. In fact, Pope John Paul II—unlike his predecessor Pope Pius XII (who had condemned Maciel and removed him from his post as the head of the Legionaries back in 1956)—, instead honored Maciel in massive celebrations held in Rome. During one such event, Pope John Paul II embraced Maciel in front of thousands of onlookers in St. Peter’s Square and heralded him an “efficacious guide to youth”2.

Clearly, the papacy of Pope John Paul II was grossly misguided on the issue of child molestation within the Roman Catholic Church and that is likely one of the reasons that many Roman Catholics believed that more time should have passed before the Vatican rushed into beatifying Pope John Paul II. Many of them believed that further investigations should have taken place.

In 2004, then-Cardinal Ratzinger reopened the Maciel sex abuse case. Around that same time, the media began to receive tip-offs about the scandal’s investigation from people inside of the Church and responded by attempting to interview church officials. In one notable incidence (shown below) “Ratzinger went as far as to slap the wrist of a reporter who dared to ask him about the Marciel investigations”3.

In 2006, when Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, he openly “acknowledged the validity of the claims, forbidding Maciel to continue his ministry and limiting him to a ‘life of prayer and penitence’”9. The Vatican itself “found Maciel guilty of ‘very serious and objectively immoral acts … confirmed by incontrovertible testimonies’ that represent ‘true crimes and manifest a life without scruples or authentic religious sentiment.” Some believe that Maciel should have been turned over to the Mexican authorities and prosecuted, but it never came to pass, and Maciel died two years later.

Strangely, Pope John Paul II (the man whom Pope Francis canonized in 2014) had been the “figure most responsible for ignoring this extraordinary accumulation of depravity,” and Benedict XVI was the man who had was tasked with combating the media and the public outcry, not just in the case of Maciel, but in the case of countles clergymen around the world who were being charged with child sex abuse.

It seemed that, once the media informed the public of Maciel’s sex abuse scandal, case after case of sex abuse arose in every diocese in Western Europe, South America, and the United States (which the media eagerly reported). The “cancer [of sex abuse],” which had begun “in the form of isolated cases,” exploded after the Maciel case was revealed10.

Since Benedict XVI’s resignation on 28 February 2013 (the first Pope to resign in almost 600 years), Pope Francis has been attempting to usher in a period of “recovery” for the Roman Catholic Church. He only wants to look at such scandals from the rear-view mirror. Such can be seen in Pope Francis’ dismissive statement on Marcial Maciel: He simply claimed that that the man was “sick, greatly sick”5 when asked about Maciel’s sex abuse scandal.

In addition, Pope Francis issued a statement at the beginning of 2017 urging all bishops to “adhere to a policy of ‘zero tolerance’ for clergy who sexually abuse children” and “begged forgiveness for a ‘a sin that shames us’”7. Such a tone is a departure from the outright silence on the issue during Pope John Paul II’s papacy and the mixture of secrecy and resolve to root out the cause during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI.

The Role of the Media

The mainstream media also played a significant role in pressuring the Vatican into responding to the child sex abuse cases among the clergy. Some might argue that their tactics were ruthless and scorched-earth, but, since the media was profiting from their coverage of the historic scandal, it is no surprise that they wanted to milk every last drop of scandal from the teat of the Catholic Church’s egregious error. In spite of their tactics, though, the media did what was needed to bring the Church to own up to its errors.

As early as 2004—the same year that the Maciel case was closed—, CNN issued a report claiming that “between 1950 and 2002 … children made more than 11,000 allegations of sexual abuse by priests … [and] the 4,450 accused priests represent about 4 percent of the 110,000 priests who served during the 52 years covered by [a study by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops].” This revealed an almost inconceivable degree of sex abuse among the Roman Catholic clergy to the public4. The start of a media firestorm for the Church.

From then until the end of Benedict XVI’s papacy, such headlines as “Catholics in Crisis: Sex and Deception in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia” (Philly Magazine); “Endemic rape and abuse of Irish children in catholic care, inquiry finds” (the Guardian); “Chicago Archdiocese releasing child sex abuse files on 36 more priests” (Chicago Tribune) were commonplace. Nowadays, however—almost a decade after the scandals truly broke out—, more common headlines are “After Scandals, Ireland Is No Longer ‘Most Catholic Country in the World’” (NPR); “Pope declares ‘zero tolerance’ for sexual abuse in Catholic Church” (The Guardian); and, most recently, “Sex Abuse and the Catholic Church: Why Is It Still a Story?” (The NY Times). This last headline suggests that, since the revelations of Maciel’s case and others in 2004 almost 13 years ago, the Catholic sex abuse scandal has essentially been a persistent story in the media.

That the child sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church has been a persistent story is evidence that it is arguably one of the most massively historic scandals of the century. It is a scandal that started with, and that was embodied by, Maciel, and that effectively destroyed the faith and trust that people—Catholics and not—had in the Roman Catholic Church, the oldest religious institution in the Western world and one that extends back to the time of ancient Rome.

In addition to the New York Times article “Sex Abuse and the Catholic Church: Why Is it Still a Story?”, countless other magazines, periodicals, and television stations, continue to publish and broadcast media covering the Church’s sex abuse scandals, as the article itself suggests. As recently as 2016, an article was published in the New Yorker entitled “What Pope Benedict knew about abuse in the Catholic Church.” In the article, the author examines the entire lead-up of the Catholic Church’s sex scandal and, in it, he mentions the “most prominent [sex abuse] case”—namely, that of “Father Marcial Maciel, a favorite of Pope John Paul II and the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a powerful Mexican religious order that, at its pinnacle, included eight hundred priests, fifteen universities, and a hundred and fifty prep schools, as well as a lay movement with a reported seventy thousand followers.” The author also mentions that, by 2006, the “Church had spent $2.6 billion settling sexual-abuse cases”9.

According to Goodstein, author of the NY Times article, the reason that the media is still covering the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church is that the victims were so severely impacted by the abuse that they suffered:

Many [of the victims] are resilient and accomplished … Some are utterly destroyed, unable to hold down a job or romantic relationship. But no matter where they are on this spectrum, the abuse they suffered is often so searing that it is the formative experience of their lives. Even if they have a supportive family and friends, a financial cushion and plenty of therapy—all big “ifs”—they never entirely leave it behind.6

That is one way of explaining it. Another is that the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church was an institutional scandal, and not a singular one. Unlike the scandals of politicians like Silvio Berlusconi or Bill Clinton, the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church was one that permeated an entire institution—and, as “Ratzinger understood,” “priestly sex abuse [is] the negation of everything the Church [is] supposed to stand for”9. And the men who committed those crimes, such as Marcial Maciel—the worst of them all—did not suffer the punishment that an individual should have suffered, but instead endured a light punishment as a mere component of the institution that he so severely poisoned. And the institution itself suffered.

Claims of child sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church had been afloat since 1985 and children had been getting abused within the Church since around 1950 or earlier. Though it was the scandal of Marcial Maciel Degollago, which culminated in 2004, that precipitated the media firestorm that rocked the Church and that possibly caused an unknown figure of Catholics to step away from their religious institution, as the NPR radio program reported in 2015. The media’s reporting of these scandals has affected the Roman Catholic Church so profoundly that it can never be the same again. Countless congregants have abandoned the Church, either on the basis of bad press or because the Church has compromised their trust, and the Roman Catholic Church is now seen by the public as an untenable institution that has a severe, and possibly incurable, internal problem. Though Benedict XVI strove to clamp down on the wayward priests (as Pope John Paul II should have done) and Pope Francis is now attempting to put the child sex abuse scandal behind Catholics, it is likely that, in history books recording these incidents, the name of Marcial Maciel Degollago will never be forgotten and will be consigned to the pages of infamy along with Bellarmine and Torquemada.

Author: Jonathan Reeves


1. Berry, Jason. “Fr. Marcial Maciel leaves behind a flawed legacy.” National Catholic, National Catholic, 22 February 2008. Accessed 22 February 2017.

2. Berry, Jason. “Money Paved the Way for Maciel’s Influence in the Vatican.” National Catholic Reporter, National Catholic Reporter, 6 April 2010. Accessed 24 February 2017.

3. Doward, Jamie. “The Pope, the letter and the child sex claim.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media Limited, 24 April 2005, Accessed 12 February 2017.

4. “Draft survey: 4,450 priests accused of sex abuse.”, CNN, 17 February 2004. Accessed 24 February 2017.

5. Fernandez De Castro, Rafa. “Will Pope Francis Confront the ‘Devil’ in the Mexican Church?” Fusion, Fusion Media Network, LLC, 9 February 2016, Accessed 12 February 2017.

6. Goodstein, Laurie. “Sex Abuse and the Catholic Church: Why Is It Still a Story?” New York Times, The New York Times Company, 20 April 2016, Accessed 24 February 2017.

7. “Pope Declares ‘Zero Tolerance’ for Sexual Abuse in Catholic Church.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media Limited, 2 January 2017, Accessed 24 February 2017.

8. “Secrets of the Vatican.” PBS Frontline, directed by Antony Thomas, PBS, 2014.

9. Stille, Alexander. “What Pope Benedict Knew about Abuse in the Catholic Church.” The New Yorker, Condé Nast, 14 January 2016, Accessed 12 February 2017.

10. Tornielli, Andrea. “Ratzinger strikes again at the filth in the Church.” La Stampa, La Stampa, 9 June 2011. Accessed 20 February 2017.