Both in the Catholic Church as well as in individual lives, sometimes the area where one becomes truly great is the same place where once you failed badly and got burned.

Theologically speaking, grace redeems what was once the place of darkness. Conversion isn’t just about overcoming vices, but making space for God’s grace to turn them into virtues.

To take a classic example, back in the 1990s Opus Dei had the most disastrously defensive communications operation in the Catholic Church. But in the interlude between the 1992 beatification and the 2002 canonization of their founder, St. Josemaría de Escrivá, they turned that around, forging an approach based on transparency and accountability that paid off big-time when the “Da Vinci Code” movie appeared.

These days, Opus Dei’s communications office in Rome is the go-to source for huge numbers of journalists seeking their way around Church stories, while its Holy Cross University runs the Church’s must-attend conference for Church communicators.

What Opus Dei has done in the field of communications could be what the Legionaries of Christ come to achieve in the field of sex abuse prevention — that is, a model for others to follow.

It sounds laughable. How could the order founded by the Mexican Marcial Maciel Degollado, the most notorious pedophile in contemporary Church history, whose crimes were for so long covered up and denied, possibly give anyone lessons on child protection?

The late Rev. Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, spoke at a conference in Madrid in 2001. (CNS/EFE/J.L. Pino)
The late Rev. Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, spoke at a conference in Madrid in 2001. (CNS/EFE/J.L. Pino)

But humiliation can spark change. After 120 (over a tenth) of their priests and around 600 seminarians left in the wake of the Maciel scandal in 2009-2013, the Legion has undergone a root-and-branch review, sifting the original God-given charism of the order from the corruption that Maciel’s crime and cover-up engendered.

Quietly, and largely unnoticed, the 1650-strong Legion (of whom four are bishops, 959 are priests and the rest in formation) have been developing guidelines on abuse prevention and response that would not be out of place in the United States, but which are far ahead of the curve in much of Latin America.

While I was in Rome recently to give a workshop to students attending the “Diploma in Safeguarding of Minors” program run by the Gregorian University’s Center for Child Protection, I was surprised to find a Legionary priest among them. He turned out to be a former seminary rector who has been tapped to improve the order’s seminaries worldwide.

When I sat down later that week with Father Benjamín Clariond, who is helping to coordinate child protection policies for the Legion, I learned that the order’s Anáhuac University in Mexico City recently opened a center similar to the one in the Gregorian.

The center bears the penitential name of “Reparare,” Latin for ‘repair’ or ‘retrieve.’

Its mission is to offer prevention training and advice to charities, schools and religious orders and to advise on protocols that put the victim first. Its director, Elena Barrero, head of Psychology at Anáhuac, told me an in email from Mexico that Reparare is looking to advise dioceses and religious orders on implementing guidelines for “detection, prevention, intervention and attention,” and offering advice and training on the selection of candidates for priesthood and religious life.

The center is even offering to certify as “safe communities” institutions that follow the training and guidelines.

Barrero, who is a member of the Legion’s lay branch, Regnum Christi, says Reparare is the necessary response to a growing problem in both Church and society that’s usually brushed under the carpet.

“The children of Mexico, as well as the victims, need us to confront this issue directly, and to take concrete actions for their protection and healing,” she says.

The Legion’s center was launched with a conference of experts at the end of April well attended by clinical psychologists, educationalists and members of different religious orders and dioceses.

Among those addressing the conference was Dr. Eusebio Rubio Aurioles, who presented the raw data on the prevalence of abuse in Mexico, and Father David Fitzgerald, superior general of the Servants of the Paraclete, an order that has long experience in treating pedophile priests.

The conference also heard from a bishops’ conference representative on the Mexican Church’s still-to-be-published guidelines on prevention.

Despite some resistance to the conference from some Legionaries, the leadership of the Legion has strongly backed the initiative.

“They tell us that they want to discuss the issue openly, and to learn from specialists so this never happens again,” says Barrero. “They want to learn the lessons of what they went through and use them to help other members of both Church and society.”

Clariond’s own conference speech identified a series of warning lights that should help people in schools and parishes become alert to the possibility of an abuser. The key point, he said, was to overcome the silence that inevitably surrounds the issue, and to voice concerns.

“This silence is what allows the abuser to continue to abuse, to carry on grooming, and to harm more people,” said Clariond, who as a young priest lived with Maciel for eight years at the Legion’s headquarters in Rome.

Over coffee in Rome, Clariond said that, looking back, the courage of Maciel’s victims, as with victims of clerical abuse generally, was the key to converting the Church to a new path of understanding and commitment.

“Their sorrow,” he said, “demands our pastoral conversion.”

The second day of the conference began with a penitential Mass that begged forgiveness of victims in both society and the Church for failing to protect them. Clariond preached the homily.

Barrero says the conference showed that the Legionaries “want to listen to the victim and to see things from their point of view” and that there was a recognition that this was the path to follow.

But while many were ready to follow it, he said, some Legionaries “still need to overcome the pain of everything they went through before being able to open up.”

The change “is not easy and we still have a long way to go,” agrees Clariond.

“But with God’s grace we want to start the conversation, break the silence, make people within the Church and in society at large aware of the causes of abuse, and put effective means to prevent it — while helping people who have suffered to heal.”