The Pope is likely to appoint a handpicked "commissioner" to oversee the Legion of Christ, according to Italian news sources, striking another blow to the powerful and shadowy religious order already laid low by a sex scandal involving its founder.
The Legion's founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, a charismatic priest, conservative theologian and prolific fundraiser, is perhaps the most prominent clergyman accused in recent years of sexual misconduct. The way the Pope ultimately chooses to handle the order -- forcing it to reform, purging its leadership or shuttering it completely -- is seen by some as a first test of how the Vatican will deal with the larger sex scandal embroiling the Church.
The commissioner is expected to come from outside the Legion's ranks of 800 priests and would have "full powers" to run the order, answering only to the Pope, reported Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. The Legion has been under investigation by a team of five bishops for Maciel's sexual behavior and his use of funds.
The Legion's global reach and influence were closely tied to Maciel, a confidant of Pope John Paul II who demanded military-style obedience from his followers. Maciel founded the order in 1941, and raised millions of dollars for the church, building universities in Mexico City and Rome and seminaries in 22 countries.
But the same obedience that Maciel required from his followers contributed to one of the modern church's most shocking scandals.
Eight men alleged in letters to the Vatican in 1998 that Father Maciel had sexually molested them when they were young seminarians. In 2006, soon after Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope, the new pontiff forced Maciel out of the active priesthood and ordered him to live a life of "prayer and penance." Maciel died in 2008, and since his death the Legion has had to contend with new charges that Maciel fathered children with several different women. The order has now admitted, in statements posted on its web site, that its leader probably molested seminarians, and that he is the father of at least one of the children alleged to be his offspring.
A spokesman for the Legion said the order would comply with any decision made by the Vatican, following the investigation just conducted by the five bishops, or "visitators." The investigative team's report is expected at the end of this month, with the Pope announcing a decision on a course of action after that.
"Any information about the visitation would have to come from the Vatican," said Jim Fair, the U.S. spokesman for the Legion of Christ. "All we can say is that whatever the Holy See asks of us we will do."
Following the allegations against Maciel, the order's ability to fund raise was damaged and its influence waned, but the order, which counts 70,000 Catholics as members of its affiliated lay group Regnum Christi, still has allies in the corridors of the Holy See.
"If the Vatican closed it, they'd lose some income," said Jason Berry, an investigative journalist who broke the news of molestation allegations against Maciel in the 1990s and has also directed a documentary about the Legion called "Vows of Silence." "But it's debatable how much largess the Legion can give the Vatican because they are clearly retrenching. People who trusted the Legion for many years are pulling back and they've lost their fundraiser in chief."
But if the Vatican were to take direct action against the Legion, he said, it would do so cautiously.
"It would be a very dicey move for the Vatican to make," Berry said. "The idea of preserving the name brand has to be weighed against what they don't know about the operation. My suspicion is there is a lot the Vatican does not know."
"Many of the Legionaries are decent, hard-working, very conservative priests, but they've all been trained to think of a world in which there is the Legion and there are the enemies of the Legion," he said.
Appointing a commissioner may allow the Pope to chart a compromise between taking no action against the Legion and destroying it outright, Berry said. The anonymous leaks about appointing a commissioner may be a trial balloon the Vatican is floating to measure public sentiment, Berry added.
"This could be a tea leaves thing. The Vatican could be thinking: 'Let's see how people respond and decide if that's what we're going to do,'" he said.
The Legion remains enmeshed in the scandals left to it by Maciel. There are pending lawsuits both by his alleged heirs and those who contributed money to the Legion. On Monday it was announced the order would sell its 10-acre U.S. headquarters in Orange, Conn.