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Cardinal says Legionaries' reform slowed by criticism of superiors

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Cardinal Velasio De Paolis leads the ordination of 61 Legionary priests at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome Dec. 24, 2010. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY -- The reform of the Legionaries of Christ is being undermined by members who believe the current leadership needs to go and that more drastic measures are needed, said the cardinal appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to oversee the reform.

Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, the papal delegate with authority over the Legionaries, said there was "a very small" group of members who, focusing "on the so-called 'structural contamination' of the congregation, have shown a radical lack of trust in the continuation and renewal" of the Legionaries and have influenced others, especially young seminarians, to leave.

The cardinal's remarks July 2 were made to Legionaries gathered in Rome for the ordination of new deacons.

In July 2010, the pope appointed the cardinal to oversee the reform of the Legionaries and the rewriting of their constitutions in wake of confirmation that Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Legionaries' founder, had sexually abused seminarians and had fathered children.

Legionaries Father Andreas Schoggl, spokesman for the order in Rome, told Catholic News Service that Cardinal De Paolis' remarks July 2 were made during "an in-house meeting, and we shared a Spanish transcription-translation with the Legionaries worldwide."

The text was leaked to the Mexican news site Milenio, he told CNS July 13, confirming the accuracy of the transcript.

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In an email message, Father Schoggl said Cardinal De Paolis was not objecting to differences of opinion within the congregation.

"Actually, he loves debating and promoted a culture of sound debate in the Legion during the last year," Father Schoggl said.

However, the priest said, opposition to the congregation's superiors, who were confirmed by the Vatican in 2010, and "against the way of renewal as pointed out by the papal delegate can be disruptive and had to be addressed."

Cardinal De Paolis used the meeting as an occasion to review what had been done during his year as papal delegate. He said the order's constitutions had been thoroughly reviewed and a new draft had been written and circulated for review. The constitutions and the election of new superiors are expected at the next general chapter of the Legionaries, but the entire process would probably take another three years to complete, the cardinal said.

He also said "2010 was the year that the institute suffered its greatest losses" in terms of seminarians and priests leaving, but "it could hardly have been otherwise" given the Vatican's formal recognition of the extent of the abuse committed by Father Maciel.

Fortunately, the cardinal said, most of the priests who left were incardinated into dioceses around the world, and very few left the priesthood altogether.

At the same time, Cardinal De Paolis said, some of the members who have stayed have exercised a "negative influence" on others by constantly criticizing the renewal effort and "exploiting the use of the Internet with a display of great energy that could be put to better use."

The small group, whom "some -- I don't know who -- have called 'dissidents,'" seem to think "they have a prophetic mission" to replace the Legionaries' superiors, he said. Some critics believe the superiors were too close to Father Maciel and were instrumental in covering up his abusive behavior.

"Holding firm to the injury they suffered in the congregation, they seem almost to enjoy trying to continually reopen the wounds instead of looking deeper and with hope toward the future, working for a true renewal, taking the true path of conversion," the cardinal said.

Cardinal De Paolis told the Legionaries, "Yes, the congregation needs to purify and renew itself; this can and must be done through the conversion and renewal of the members individually."

Christians must be aware of their sins, he said, but they also must believe in the power of God's grace to bring forgiveness and healing.

Differences of opinion and even lively debates are part of community life, he said, but airing those differences in public through the Internet only sullies the image of the Legionaries and accomplishes nothing constructive.

News of the doubts about the reform process of the Legionaries comes as officials at the University of Sacramento, the only university in the United States run by the order, announced that plans to establish a new campus for the university have ended, along with the school's current academic programs.

Plans called for establishing a new campus university in the eastern part of Sacramento County.

"A private university remains an exceptional vision for the Sacramento area," said Legionary Father Robert Presutti, university president, in a July 7 news release. "The Legionaries of Christ are faced with other priorities and challenges that simply do not permit it to proceed as planned."

In a letter to donors and supporters, Father Presutti said the increasing financial and personnel challenges that the Legionaries of Christ have faced in recent years led the religious congregation to conclude that it could no longer move forward with plans for developing a new university campus.

He said personnel constraints were causing a reassignment of duties among Legionaries of Christ priests in the United States and after nine years in Sacramento, he will be in a new assignment in the fall at a K-12 school run by the Legionaries in Atlanta.

Father Presutti also announced that Immaculate Conception Apostolic School in Colfax, operated by the Legionaries for teenage boys contemplating the priesthood, would also close in August.

Legionaries of Christ priests have served in the Diocese of Sacramento for 10 years and staff Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Sacramento. "We are grateful for their efforts and thankful that they will continue to serve the community through their work at Our Lady of Guadalupe," Bishop Jaime Soto said in a statement.

Current university classes will continue to run to their completion in August, Father Presutti said.

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