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Vatican disciplines priest accused of sex abuse

Published May 20, 2006

VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI disciplined the founder of the conservative Legionaries of Christ, a favorite of Pope John Paul II who for decades has been dogged by sexual abuse allegations, effectively making the elderly prelate a priest in name only.

In its announcement Friday, the Vatican did not say whether it had determined the accusations against the 86-year-old Mexican priest, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, were true. But canon law experts said the Vatican would not have imposed such a severe penalty unless it found some validity to the complaints.

The Vatican said its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had "invited the priest to a reserved life of prayer and penance, renouncing every public ministry," meaning he cannot celebrate Mass or other sacraments in public.

Maciel is the most prominent Catholic Church official to be disciplined by the Vatican for alleged involvement in child sexual abuse. In addition, it marks the first major abuse penalty approved by Pope Benedict since he became pope last year.

Since 1998, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Pope Benedict headed before he became pope, has been investigating allegations by former seminarians that Maciel sexually abused them.

Initially, nine former seminarians said Maciel had abused them when they were young boys or teenagers in Roman Catholic seminaries in the 1940s through the 1960s. Later, others came forward.

Maciel and the Legionaries strongly denied the allegations. On Friday, the Legionaries said in a statement that Maciel, while declaring himself innocent, accepted the Vatican decision "with faith, complete serenity and tranquility of conscience."

Saul Barrales, 74, one of the original nine accusers, praised the Vatican's action. "Pope John Paul II supported him, but I think he was deceived or he wasn't totally informed of the truth," he said from Mexico City.

The Vatican said it had investigated the allegations against Maciel but had decided against a full-fledged church trial against him because of his age and ill health.

The Rev. John Coughlin, professor of canon law at the University of Notre Dame Law School, said that although Maciel was not removed from the priesthood, the Vatican sanction was still a "very serious penalty."

"The Vatican wouldn't have taken this action if they thought he was totally innocent," Coughlin said.

The Legionaries, founded by Maciel in 1941, is one of the church's fastest-growing religious orders, with more than 600 priests and 2,500 seminarians in 20 countries. It was well-regarded because of its conservativism, loyalty to church teaching and recruitment.

[Last modified May 20, 2006, 07:39:25]

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