VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - How can an order of priests go on serving the Catholic Church and the faithful after revelations that the man who founded it was a fraud who lived a double life as a pedophile, womanizer and drug addict?
That is the dilemma facing the Legionaries of Christ, as the conservative religious order started a six-week meeting on Wednesday to write a new constitution and chart a future course that would put the stain of scandal behind it.
The order, once a darling of the Vatican because it attracted more people to religious vocations and made sizeable financial donations to the Church, has been in receivership since 2010.
At that point, former Pope Benedict appointed a personal delegate to run it while investigations were carried out and preparations made for upcoming changes.
The order runs private Catholic schools and charitable organizations in 22 countries via its network of some 950 priests and 1,000 seminarians. It operates a Catholic university in Rome and its lay movement, known as Regnum Christi, has around 30,000 members.
Father Marcial Maciel, a Mexican who founded the order in 1941, ran it like a cult rooted in secrecy, according to former Legionaries. Members took a special vow promising never to criticize the founder or question his motives.
For decades the Vatican dismissed accusations by seminarians that Maciel had abused them sexually, some when they were as young as 12.
Pope John Paul II, who is set to become a saint in May, was a strong supporter, appreciating the group’s ability to attract more people to clerical life than other religious orders.
The order also had many wealthy conservative benefactors who saw it as a bulwark against liberalism in the Church.
“The Legion for six decades was a cult of personality built on lies and Maciel’s phenomenal fundraising,” said Jason Berry, author of “Render unto Rome - The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church” and who has written extensively on the order.
In 2006, a year after John Paul’s death, a Vatican investigation concluded that the accusations of molestation that had been previously denied were true. Pope Benedict ordered Maciel to retire to a life of “prayer and penitence”.
Maciel died in 2008 at the age of 87, and the next year more Church investigations found that he had also fathered several children with at least two different women, visited his “families” regularly and sent them money for their upkeep.
The order has acknowledged that Maciel, who was also a morphine addict, had “a prolonged and stable relationship” with one of the women.
The purpose of the gathering, known as a “general chapter,” is to write a new constitution for the order that will allow it to cleanse itself of Maciel’s lingering influence and elect new leaders. It is due to last at least six weeks.
At a Mass opening the gathering, Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, the papal delegate who oversaw the order for the past three years, said delegates had to find “a common path to healing” and spiritual renewal.
“You have suffered the shame of being accused, viewed with suspicion and of being exposed to public opinion, even within the Church,” he said. “Suffering has purified you, matured you.”
Critics of the order say those who were close to Maciel had to have know about his crimes and should not be involved in decisions of the general chapter, which is being attended by the Legionaries superiors and delegates from around the world.
“Some Legionaries still see Maciel as having been wrongly accused. People who left openly call it a cult,” Berry said. “These issues should be resolved in sustained discussion with help from trained therapists. Unless the truth becomes a priority, how can you change a movement built on lies?”
Pope Francis, who has called for a “deep renewal” of the order, will have to approve its new constitution.
Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Mike Collett-White