ROME — The Vatican approved a new set of constitutions for the Legionaries of Christ on Saturday, a once-powerful Catholic religious order that fell from grace under Pope Benedict XVI after revelations that its founder had been guilty of a wide range of sexual abuse and misconduct.
The new rules do not specifically deal with sexual abuse, with the Legion asserting that its policies on that front are developed on a national level.
The constitutions, made available in Spanish by the Legionaries on Saturday, present the fundamental rules for the order founded by the late Rev. Marciel Maciel Degollado in Mexico in 1959. Every Catholic religious order has them, to define the order’s identity and to govern its activities.
The Rev. Eduardo Robles-Gil, general director of the order, defined the document “as the path that will guide us to holiness and apostolic fruitfulness in serving the Church and men and women.”
Robles-Gil said the new rules “describe the specific way each of us should live religious life in the Legion.”
Maciel died in 2008, two years after being sentenced to a life of prayer and penance by Pope Benedict XVI for creating a “system of power” that enabled him to lead an “immoral” double life “devoid of scruples and authentic religious sentiment.”
The Legionaries eventually acknowledged that Maciel had carried on relationships with two women and fathered up to six children out of wedlock, in addition to sexually abusing young seminarians and, reportedly, even two of his own children.
The bombshell about Maciel’s misconduct, along with scandals involving other prominent Legionaries, makes the order the most polarizing symbol of the broader sexual abuse crisis in Catholicism.
The absence of any specific mention of child protection was explained by a press release issued by the Legionaries.
“Since these policies [that prevent sexual abuse] are in a process of continual improvement and since they must be in accord with legislation in each country, the text of the Constitutions is not the place where these policies should be defined,” it said.
Article 29 of the new statutes does deal in a generic way with children and adolescents. It reads: “Be kind, but avoid inappropriate familiarity in dealing with children and adolescents, especially those whose education has been entrusted to you.”
In the case of the Legion, the approval of the constitution fulfills one of the requested steps of the renewal process started under Benedict XVI in 2010, when he named Italian Cardinal Velasio De Paolis as Pontifical Delegate to lead a process of reform, which continued under Pope Francis.
The text is the result of a three-year period of consultation in which all the members of the Legion had the opportunity to participate and contribute.
The definition of the “charism,” which in management terms would be defined as the order’s mission, was also part of the renewal process and it can be found in the new Constitutions.
According to Article Four, Legionaries should “bring others to live out their baptismal calling to the full, fostering the spiritual growth, the integral formation and the apostolic outreach of the men and women.”
Critics, including some of the order’s former members, have called for it to be abolished. The Vatican instead decided to push it towards change, a process that concluded with the Jan. 20 election of Robles, a 61-year-old priest and formerly the top Legionaries official in Mexico, as the order’s new leader.
In the United States, policies and procedures applied by the Legion to protect minors are accredited by Praesidium Inc., a national organization that works with religious and civil institutions to establish and maintain standards for protecting children and vulnerable adults.
In December 2013, the Legionaries released their Code of Conduct Pertaining to Safe Environment Issues in North America, which mandates that all known or suspected cases of sexual abuse should be reported to the civil authorities.
According to the 2013 statistics, with 4 bishops, 954 priests, 836 religious in formation and novices, the Legion of Christ is currently present in 22 countries.