The Vatican's Watergate: Follow The Money

One of the critical legacies of Pope John Paul II was his unwavering support for the biggest institutional force in the greater conspiracy to commit and hide sex abuse in the Catholic Church. I'm referring to the Legion of Christ, a creepy, vast, enormously wealthy church within a church, run by pederast, pedophile, bigamist and con artist, Marcial Maciel. Maciel, who was addicted to morphine, abused (at least) twenty seminarians and had (at least) two wives, and several children. The Legion at its peak had resources of $33 billion. His chief enablers and supporters were, of course, the theocons, who got a thrill up the leg observing this strictly orthodox leadership cult, combining the political and social attitudes of the 1950s with the oomph of modern day evangelical growth and money.

Richard John Neuhaus was a staunch supporter and dismissed all the charges against Maciel with "moral certainty." Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum spoke at Legion conferences. Bill Bennett spoke at Legion events and said, "I am fortunate enough to know and trust the priests of the Legionaries of Christ. ... The flourishing of the Legionaries is a cause for hope in a time of much darkness." Bill Donohue supported Maciel against now-substantiated charges of abuse. But in some ways, Maciel's most disturbing enabler was Mary Ann Glendon, Harvard Law Professor and former ambassador to the Vatican:

[Glendon] taught at Regina Apostolorum Athenaeum, the Legion's university in Rome, and advised in the planning that led to the order's first university in America, University of Sacramento, Calif. In a 2002 letter for the Legion Web site she scoffed at the allegations against Maciel and praised his "radiant holiness" and "the success of Regnum Christi [the order's lay wing] and the Legionaries of Christ in advancing the New Evangelization."

Maciel - whom John Paul II called an "efficacious guide to youth" - ran what can only be called a corrupt cult, designed in part to protect his own long life of sexual abuse and misconduct, where members were ruthlessly pressured to raise and give money to the organization.

How did Maciel get away with this for so long?

Jason Berry, a journalistic icon in the coverage of the sex abuse scandal, has added a critical and disturbing aspect of this story. Yes, it's about money, the one thing that has not emerged yet in the church's current crisis. Yes, vast amounts of money that Maciel retained and funneled - in cash - to critical Vatican officials, who subsequently turned a blind eye to Maciel's crimes (Ratzinger was one of the very few Vatican officials who refused to accept the money, an indication both of his integrity but also of his awareness of what Maciel was up to). This flow of cash to important and influential figures was a massive operation and Berry has even found former members of the Legion who were recruited to hand over the cash to critical cardinals and officials in plain sealed envelopes:

"When Fr. Maciel would leave Rome it was my duty to supply him with $10,000 in cash -- $5,000 in American dollars, and the other half in the currency of the country to which he was traveling," explained Fichter. "I would be informed by one of his assistants that he was leaving and I would have to prepare the funds for him. I never questioned that he was not using it for good and noble purposes. It was a routine part of my job. He was so totally above reproach that I felt honored to have that role. He did not submit any receipts and I would have not dared to ask him for a receipt."

Among those who were recipients of large gifts were the head of the Congregation for Religious, the organization that actually had the authority to investigate Maciel. That gift - in true mafioso style - was a lavish and generous renovation of his residence.

Maciel then wanted to institute a personal vow for members of the Legion - as a way to bind cult-members to silence about any and all of Maciel's crimes. Even the head of the Congregation for Religious, in his newly fabulous apartment, balked at this. So Maciel went directly to John Paul II's key aide and personal confidant, Polish Msgr Dziwisz. And by going directly, I mean funneling huge amounts of cash. One way Maciel did this was by selecting key wealthy Legion members for attendance at the Pope's private mass. These Legionnaires subsequently donated vast amounts to Dziwisz as a gift to the church - a bit like getting campaign contributions by having private access to politicians. Money quote:

One of the ex-Legionaries in Rome told NCR that a Mexican family in 1997 gave Dziwisz $50,000 upon attending Mass. "We arranged things like that," he said of his role as go-between. Did John Paul know about the funds?

Only Dziwisz would know. Given the pope's ascetic lifestyle and accounts of his charitable giving, the funds could have gone to a deserving cause. Dziwisz's book says nothing of donations and contains no mention of Maciel or the Legion. The priest who arranged for the Mexican family to attend Mass worried, in hindsight, about the frequency with which Legionaries facilitated funds to Dziwisz.

"This happened all the time with Dziwisz," said a second ex-Legionary, who was informed of the transactions.

Fr. Alvaro Corcuera, who would succeed Maciel as director general in 2004, and one or two other Legionaries "would go up to see Dziwisz on the third floor. They were welcomed. They were known within the household."

Struggling to give context to the donations, this cleric continued: "You're saying these laypeople are good and fervent, it's good for them to meet the pope. The expression is opera carita -- 'We're making an offering for your works of charity.' That's the way it's done. In fact you don't know where the money's going." He paused. "It's an elegant way of giving a bribe." ...

When Martínez Somalo, a Spaniard, became head of the congregation overseeing religious in 1994, Maciel dispatched a priest to Martínez Somalo's home. The young priest carried an envelope thick with cash. "I didn't bat an eye," he recalled. "I went up to his apartment, handed him the envelope, said goodbye. ... It was a way of making friends, insuring certain help if it were needed, oiling the cogs."

Another critical figure who was the recipient of vast amounts of Legion money was Cardinal Sodano. Sodano was critical to fending off investigation of Maciel once formal charges were brought in 1998:

"Cardinal Sodano was the cheerleader for the Legion," said one of the ex-Legionaries. "He'd come give a talk at Christmas and they'd give him $10,000." Another priest recalled a $5,000 donation to Sodano.

Sodano was also the key Vatican figure who this Easter derided the latest stories of abuse as "petty gossip" and declared the church united in defending the Pope. He has refused to answer Berry's questions about the Legion's cash gifts to him over the years.

So this multiple rapist and bigamist essentially got away with his crimes because he bought silence from key Vatican officials, at the very least by ingratiating himself by donating huge amounts to the church and at the very most by directly bribing key officials with envelopes stuffed with cash.

Benedict XVI knew all of this. To his credit, he was clearly troubled by it, and never accepted its compromising money. But given the authority to pursue Maciel in 2001, Ratzinger held off for four years until Maciel's protector, John Paul II, was incapacitated and near death. Which means to say: Ratzinger knew what had gone on, and allowed a clear molester and bigamist to remain a pillar of John Paul II's church for years.

John Paul The Great? More like: John Paul The Great Enabler of Abuse In the Pursuit of Orthodoxy and Money.