Fr. Maciel’s penance
The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith has invited Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, to spend his remaining days in “prayer and penance, refraining from all public ministry”. Given the enormity of the sexual abuse accusations made against Maciel and the apparent credibility of many of his accusers, this directive (an “invitation” from CDF being essentially indistinguishable from an order), stopping short of a trial and well short of a conviction (or, for that matter, exoneration), will strike some as an inadequate resolution of this case.
Several obstacles stand in the way of a formal canonical trial in Maciel’s case. First, such accusations, by their very nature, are difficult to prove (that being one of the most enraging aspects of this scandal); second, the long period of time since the alleged acts raises serious questions (usually under the rubric of statutes of limitations) about the prudence of attempting to adjudicate such cases at all; third, the juridic problems associated with the excessively long list of “affirmative defenses” that defendants can use to resist canonical penalties (chiefly in 1983 CIC 1323-1324) are very difficult to address during a trial; finally, in every prosecution of the elderly (Maciel is 86), prosecutors ask cui bono?
Nevertheless, I think that the CDF directive that Maciel undertake prayerful “penance” might have greater canonical significance than meets the eye.
Under common law, one is either found guilty of a crime in a trial, or not; thus, the possibility of, and significance of, canon law’s alternative to a formal guilty verdict and sentence is easy to miss, especially since it (penance) sounds like something all the faithful are called to anyway (1983 CIC 1249).
Canon 1312.3, setting out the basic categories of ecclesiastical sanctions, states “Penal remedies and penances are also used; the former especially to prevent delicts, the latter to substitute for or to increase a penalty.” In other words, the same kinds of acts or omissions that could result in a canonical penalty can, for various reasons, result instead in what is called a “penance”. The possibility that CDF’s call here for penance is its response to canonical crime(s) increases when one notes that 1983 CIC 1339-1340 authorize penances for those “upon whom, after investigation, grave suspicion of having committed a delict has fallen.”
Nothing here proves the accusations against Maciel, which he has repeatedly denied; nor does it force the conclusion that CDF believes the accusations; in fact, we do not even know whether CDF is using the word “penance” with a sanctions-connotation. As American lawyers would say, there is wiggle-room in the statement, and it is possible that today we see Maciel joining the sad list of holy men and women who, over the centuries, have been vilified by the world and mistreated by ecclesiastical authority.
On the other hand, Rome is not in the habit of publicly telling successful, high-profile Church leaders to go off and spend their lives in private penance. It is possible that CDF examined the Maciel case, found within it evidence of grave misconduct yet, like the farmer who discovered weeds growing amid the wheat (Matt XIII), decided that uprooting the evil now would harm the innocent; if so, it seems, CDF has directed Maciel to especially prepare, trusting in the infinite mercy of Christ, for the day when every deed, and every aspect of every deed, will be made plain to all.
Update: 1 February 2007, Caveat lector: Fr. Maciel was not “suspended”