By comparing Archbishop Romero with Fr. Marcial Maciel (1920-2008), the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, accused of sexual abuse and of fathering children in betrayal of his vow of celibacy, we hope to show, as Ab. Romero preached, that even someone who damages the fragile, God-given gift of life, “is showing us also by contrast the divine image of the God of life, of the God who respects the freedom of the human person.” (February 17, 1980 Homily.)
Romero and Maciel were Latin American prelates born in the early 20th Century (Romero in El Salvador in 1917, and Maciel in Mexico in 1920) and ordained as priests during the WWII years (Romero in Rome in 1942, and Maciel in Mexico in 1944). But, that’s where the similarities end. They pursued their ministries with entirely different approaches and their legacies will mean diametrically opposing things—because of the way they approached their vocations. Fr. Maciel sought to make his contribution by founding an order, the Legionaries of Christ and its associated lay arm Regnum Christi. Romero, on the other hand, sought out conventional pastoral and clerical roles as a secretary to the bishops’ conference and parish priest in provincial El Salvador. By stroke of history, the Legionaries of Christ did not go into El Salvador and, as a result, Romero had no interactions with Maciel or his organization to speak of. Instead, Romero was close to the Legion of Mary, which also promotes a lay religious movement, and Romero had constant collaboration with Legionaries of Mary during his entire clerical career. Promoting it as archbishop, Romero professed to “admire the way in which this army of Mary is willing to work under the banner of the Virgin for the integral salvation of our people.” (June 4, 1978 Hom.)
In characteristic fashion, Ab. Romero approached his vow of celibacy with the simple sincerity of someone who makes a heartfelt pledge. “If we priests accept our commitment to renounce marriage,” he said, “then we must be faithful to this commitment because we are called to be witnesses in the midst of the world ...” (Nov. 6, 1977 Hom.) Vows of celibacy, he said, “are giving a witness about our future life.” (Id.) The contrast between Archbishop Romero and Fr. Maciel is notable—not because one man was perfect and the other imperfect: both were humans and prone to weakness. When we examine their personal sanctity, we cannot avoid the differences relating to lifestyle and life path each man staked out for himself. In the case of Fr. Maciel, the Vatican eventually found “incontrovertible” evidence of “real crimes and ... a life devoid of scruples and authentic religious meaning.” (May 1, 2010 Vatican Communiqué.) However, foiled investigations and strong defenses from powerful allies “rendered him unassailable, making it very difficult, as a result, to know the truth about his life.” (Communiqué, supra.) Ab. Romero never had so many ace cards—and will rest on his merits for vindication.
As a founder of a new religious order, Fr. Maciel had to be constantly fundraising and seeking donations to finance the new institution. According to an investigative report, the need to attract and keep donors kept Maciel in “a perpetual quest for money ... he targeted youths of wealthy families in a Mexico City Legion prep school.” (Berry, NCR, April 2012.) “Maciel built his base by cultivating wealthy patrons, particularly widows.” (Berry, NCR, April 2010.) Maciel “moved with seamless ease among the ultra-wealthy ... running his fingers down the tuxedo lapel of the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim,” during a video-taped encounter at New York fundraiser. (Berry, 2010.) Tuition at the Legion’s schools could cost from “$15,000 to $35,000, depending on the country and location.” (Berry, 2012.) By contrast, Archbishop Romero ministered to largely peasant flocks in the Salvadoran countryside. Even though he maintained friendly relations with wealthy families in San Miguel and Santiago de Maria, where he was assigned, Romero always turned away gifts or gave them to others. Fr. Maciel was able to cultivate a vast network of connections that reached to the highest levels of the Church hierarchy, and to call on those connections to slow down and thwart investigations of his misconduct. Archbishop Romero, on the other hand, while friendly with a few Vatican officials such as Cardinals Pironio and Lorscheider, had trouble keeping up when his aristocratic detractors flooded the Vatican with complaints about him—but, no one can say he was an influence peddler.
One must assume that both Fr. Maciel and Romero started on their priestly vocation with the same lofty aspiration to be holy—even though sexual abuse accusations against Maciel date back to the 1950s. But priests are men, and are prone to temptation. Maciel was investigated for drug abuse in 1956 and was, in fact, hospitalized for morphine addiction. Of course, Maciel’s most terrible failings were his alleged abuse of children, and his fathering other children, whom he is also alleged to have abused. (See, Legion of Christ statement.) Ab. Romero never came near to such failings, but he did experience difficulties and sought psychological assistance. In 1971, Romero underwent three months of psychoanalysis, and confessed in 1972 to feelings of insecurity in the vow of celibacy he made in his 20s, because he might not have been mature enough when he made it. (Brockman, Spirituality Today, 1990.) Unlike Maciel, however, Romero’s response was to retreat to first principles. Romero resolves, “not travel alone to San Salvador, not stay at a ‘dubious lodging,’ avoid solitude, let someone else answer the door, keep certain persons at a distance, etc.” (Id.) He had practiced a strict form of discipline as a student, and these “precautions were the type of safeguards instilled by the asceticism of Romero’s seminary days.” (Id.) “Celibacy is a disciplinary rule that the Church demands so that we may better serve,” explains Romero confidante Jesus Delgado, “but it is not a gift that just happens.” (Vida Nueva.)
In recent years, Romero was the target of a cheap smear campaign, when Salvadoran television aired a scurrilous rightwing charge that Romero had fathered a child who now lives in Canada. (Vida Nueva, ibid.) The same charge—without any support—was made on a FaceBook post from the ARENA Party account dated April 9, 2010, and sent via a mass email in August 2011. (ARENA is the same party founded by the man believed to have ordered the Romero assassination.) “We asked them to prove it, but they had no proof,” says Delgado. (Id.) Nor is Archbishop Romero implicated in the church pedophile scandal, in which bishops are sometimes charged with concealing abusers. El Salvador has not experienced clerical abuse accusations in the magnitude of other countries: a handful of priests have been accused, a couple postdate Romero, and some have been cleared of charges. One priest, Fr. Luis Recinos, visiting from Nicaragua to study in El Salvador during the Romero years, was convicted of abuse in 2003. Another priest, Fr. Leopoldo Deras, whose parish Romero visited a couple of times, was absolved of abuse charges by a Salvadoran court in 2005. (See LPG article—in Spanish.)
With genuine faith, Ab. Romero invites us to, “look at the beauty of the message that [celibate priests] proclaim to the innocent children in our towns and villages, to the young men and women who struggle against the vile passions of this world.” (Dec. 17, 1977.) And that message is that one must regard the flesh, “with the angelic ideals of God.” (Id.) Ab. Romero lived by these ideals, but his foes are determined to besmirch his legacy. Fr. Maciel strayed from these ideals, but had powerful friends who protected him from the consequences. It may have worked for a while, but in the end, it is better to have virtue than worldly connections.