Apr. 30, 2010 -- In a case that will test Pope Benedict XVI's stated commitment to address the sex abuse issue in the Catholic Church, he met today with five bishops who are weighing the fate of a secretive, powerful order, the Legion of Christ, founded by a well-connected priest who molested dozens of boys, fathered at least one child and may have misused funds.
Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and the five bishops who investigated the Legion of Christ for the Vatican had been scheduled to meet privately, and the Pope's attendance came as a surprise. He will be deciding what reforms to mandate for the order -- whether to close the order or install new leadership from outside, as has been rumored. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the meeting will continue on Saturday.
Father Marciel Maciel, who died in 2008, had been a consummate fundraiser who ingratiated himself with the wealthy Catholics and recruited charismatic priests. He also maintained close relationships with former Pope John Paul II and other powerful leaders in the Vatican. The Legion once had an annual budget of more than $600 million, seminaries in two dozen countries, hundreds of priests and 70,000 lay followers.
Pope Benedict, while still Cardinal Ratzinger, had initiated an investigation of sex abuse charges against Maciel, and in 2006, as Pope, he forced Maciel out of the active priesthood, though he did not defrock him. In a statement issued this March, the Legion of Christ admitted that Maciel had abused seminarians. Last year, the order issued a statement admitting that its founder had fathered at least one child. He is accused of fathering children with several women.
The five bishops who are meeting with Pope Benedict today were appointed as Visitors to the Legion, meaning they visited all the centers of the Legion throughout the world as part of an investigation. They had completed their Visitation and finished their report by the start of April and were called to Rome to meet with the pope and the secretary of state.
Author and filmmaker Jason Berry, who first revealed the sexual abuse accusations against Maciel in a 1997 Hartford Courant report with coauthor Gerald Renner, and has since produced a documentary about the Legion called "Vows of Silence," said he is skeptical of the efficacy of the Vatican investigation.
"The biggest factor they face is what they don't know about the Legion of Christ," said Berry. "It's important not to assume that a final decision will be made at this meeting."
Berry said he doesn't know if the five bishops used forensic accountants that he says he believes would be necessary to construct a bona fide financial profile of the organization in case of legal culpability.
Vatican spokesman Lombardi said no statement would be released before the end of the meeting between Benedict, Bertone and the five bishops.
National spokesman for the Legion Jim Fair said the order is eagerly awaiting the results of the meeting, and that the Legion will "implement completely" any directives of the Holy See.
Father John Bartunek of the Legion of Christ in New York State gave ABC News an interview earlier this month in which he said an archbishop visited his seminary and interviewed all of the Legionaries.
When asked his response if Pope Benedict decides to disband the order, he said, "If the Holy Father wants to disband the order, we will accept it, and follow whatever he indicates or tells us."