The charges against [Marcial Maciel Degollado] first arose in 1976, when a Mexican priest and a Spanish priest gave the late Bishop John McGann detailed accounts of alleged abuse when they were teenage seminarians in Spain and Rome, where Maciel founded schools in the 1940s and 1950s. In compliance with canon law, McGann sent a dossier of the charges to Rome. The Vatican acknowledged receiving the allegations, and did nothing. McGann continued to push the priests' cause, in 1978 and 1989, but again met with silence from the Vatican. In the 1990s, seven other former Legionaries made similar sexual-abuse charges against Maciel. The Vatican remained silent. Throughout, Maciel, now 84, has maintained his innocence.
The Legion portrays Maciel as a victim of false accusations. It cites a Vatican investigation of drug abuse charges against Maciel in the 1950s. The priest was reinstated after the investigation. But as public allegations against Maciel mounted, the Vatican never proclaimed his innocence. By contrast, the Vatican publicly supported Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin when he was accused, in 1993, of sexual abuse in a civil lawsuit. The suit was dropped when the plaintiff said he could no longer trust his memory.
Maciel's photograph hangs on the walls in Legion schools. Students revere him as a hero from the days of Mexico's anti- clerical persecutions. But Maciel was kicked out of two seminaries as a young man. No others would take him, which the official Legion history chalks up to "misunderstandings." Were it not for an uncle (a bishop who had him privately tutored), Maciel would never have become a priest.