Our Lady of Infinite Division

Two years ago, Catholic leadership installed the controversial Legion of Christ order in Our Lady of Guadalupe. A group of Hispanic parishioners thought it was their church too and have been trying to throw out the controversial Legion ever since.

Many churchgoers at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe remain unhappy about the Legion of Christ’s takeover of their church.

Many churchgoers at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe remain unhappy about the Legion of Christ’s takeover of their church.

Photo by Larry Dalton

On a bright Sunday morning in June, Maria Morales and Senon Palacioz walked into the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the pink stucco cathedral near the corner of Seventh and T streets in downtown Sacramento. Inside, silent, solemn Hispanics filled the hard wooden pews, spiritually shaded by the carved mahogany altar looming overhead, waiting patiently for Mass to begin.

Four thousand people attend the seven Hispanic-language services delivered here every weekend. Scanning the spacious hall for familiar faces, Morales and Palacioz saw few. Most of the churchgoers were recent immigrants to the United States, their Sunday best consisting of blue jeans and a clean T-shirt or a freshly ironed cotton dress—simple clothing, simple people, humbled by the enormous altar and the magnificent depiction of the Twelve Stations of the Cross suspended on the temple’s east wall. They’d come to California to enjoy the secular material benefits of living in a prosperous and democratic society, but the tie that bound them together here, at the shrine, was stronger than any economic theory or mere state.

Morales, 47, middle-class, married, mother of three teenagers, had made the same journey once. Born in Mexico City, she was just 1 month old the first time she crossed the border. She and Palacioz, 73, can trace their Catholic roots back to relatives who founded the shrine in Sacramento more than three-quarters of a century ago; those who helped raise the money to build this big pink church brand new back in 1958. This institution is where Morales grew up, where she was married, where, she likes to joke, she eventually thought she’d be buried.

She’s not so sure about that anymore. Her spiritual connection to this sacred place has been broken. It was the first time she and Palacioz had been to Mass at the church in many months.Organ music flooded the chamber, washed over the pews, then slowly receded as Father Salvador Gomez, L.C., swathed in a jade robe with gold piping, stepped out of the shadows and on to the altar. “L.C.” stands for Legion of Christ, the Catholic order Gomez belongs to. The Legion is similar to orders such as the Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits, but of more recent origin, founded in Mexico City in 1941. It has since become the fastest growing order in the Church’s history and, because of the strict obedience its clergy demand of the laity, perhaps the most controversial.

It was the Sunday before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was to meet in Dallas to discuss a possible “zero-tolerance” policy toward priests who sexually abuse minors. For decades, Church leaders across the country had been covering up for sexually abusive priests, paying secret settlements to keep their victims silent. The proposed policy was a desperate damage-control measure designed to shore up the lay community’s sinking faith in Church leadership.

So Morales and Palacioz were not surprised when Gomez began calling for harmony and unity among his flock. He told the story from the Bible concerning Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees were a group of early Christians who enjoyed boasting about their own piety and were openly critical of Jesus. Gomez wove the 2000-year-old parable together with contemporary events, hinting at the Church’s sexual abuse scandal and suggesting those who questioned priests in such matters were bocones, loud-mouthed gossips.

At least that’s the way Morales and Palacioz understood him. To them, the sermon’s message was clear: Don’t complain about the Church or questionable acts by its priests; keep your mouth shut. They couldn’t help thinking that Gomez was speaking directly to them, because that’s exactly what they’ve been doing, complaining about the Legion of Christ to anyone who will listen, ever since priests from the order took over the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe two years ago. Their complaints, which include allegations that one Legion priest asked improper sexually explicit questions of several teenage children, have been for the most part met with arrogance and indifference from the Sacramento Diocese, which oversees the parishes in 20 Northern California counties.

But Morales and Palacioz are not giving up. What they’ve experienced since the members, known as Legionaries of Christ, have arrived and what they’ve learned about the order and the controversy surrounding its founder, Father Marcial Maciel, has shaken them to the very core of their faith. Call them Pharisees, call them bocones, but there’s no shutting them up, short of sending the Legionaries packing. As far as they’re concerned, the battle to save the soul of Our Lady of Guadalupe has been joined, and it won’t be won until they get their church back.

Morales and Palacioz claim to represent as many as 125 families from their parish, including many members of the Society of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the oldest Hispanic lay organization in the Sacramento Diocese. For generations, the Guadalupanos, as they call themselves, have volunteered their time to the shrine, holding weekly fund-raising breakfasts and lunches, serving as lay ministers in the Eucharist, delivering Holy Communion to those too ill to attend Mass. When Father John Monaghan, L.C., arrived in Sacramento in August 2000 at the invitation of Bishop William Weigand, the Guadalupanos were excited to be welcoming a new priest, and prepared a reception in his honor.

“A priest is like a bridge between God and the people,” Monaghan had announced in the Catholic Herald, the newspaper of the Sacramento Diocese. Born in Ireland, he joined the Legion at 16 and had spent the past 24 years ministering in southeastern Mexico. Palacioz and the other Guadalupanos gathered in the kitchen were unaware that the shy, taciturn priest sipping punch was about to burn the bridge that had connected them to the shrine for generations, relieving the Society’s members of all of their duties and replacing them with volunteers from the parish who were to be known as “Soldiers of Christ.”

The transition was accomplished in a matter of weeks, eviscerating a social structure that had taken decades to develop. Monaghan and his assistant priest used a “good cop, bad cop strategy,” Palacioz recalled. First, the assistant priest forbade the Guadalupanos from using the church’s kitchen to make tamales for the weekly Sunday fund-raisers. Then he barred them from serving in the Eucharist. When asked why these moves were being made, the assistant priest would give no reason, or say that the Guadalupe Society was not officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church. The parishioners would then complain to Monaghan, who would sympathize with them but not rescind the order. Those who wished to participate could still do so, but only as Soldiers of Christ.

It was a rude introduction to the Legion, a religious order that, as Palacioz would learn, has become known for its aggressive tactics. Yet Morales’ first meeting with Monaghan was even more traumatic and haunts her to this day.

Maria Morales became concerned with the Legion of Christ after her children experienced an unusual confession that dealt with questionable topics.

Photo by Larry Dalton

It was a Saturday night in September, a few weeks after the new priest had arrived. Morales and two other parents had taken their teenage children to the shrine to celebrate quinceañera, the coming-of-age ceremony for 15-year-old Latinas. As part of the celebration, several girls and boys were confessed by Monaghan.

Several of the girls and one of the boys appeared visibly disturbed afterward. One girl was in tears. Upon questioning, the children told their parents that Monaghan had asked them uncomfortable questions about masturbation and their sexuality.

“Do you have impure thoughts?” one girl recalled the priest asking her. “Have you ever kissed a boy? When you kiss a boy do you have impure thoughts? Do you ever think about having sex?”

“Is there a special place on your body that you like to touch?” another girl recalled the priest asking her. “Do you enjoy touching that part of your body? Do you look at yourself naked in the mirror? Do you touch your boyfriend anyplace in particular on his body? Does your boyfriend touch you anyplace in particular on your body?”

Most disturbing to the parents were the questions that one of the boys said the priest asked him.

“Have you ever slept with a boy?” Yes, answered the boy, who had recently stayed with friends on a sleepover.

“Did you like it?”

“It was a slumber party,” the boy replied.

“Are you gay?”

Angry and concerned, Morales called a priest she was acquainted with from another parish in the Sacramento Diocese. He advised her to report Monaghan to the Diocese. On September 24, Morales and the other parents (who asked not to be named in this story because their children attend local Catholic schools and might be subject to ridicule or reprisal) sent a letter detailing the confession incident to Weigand.

The Diocese responded to their complaint quickly at first, telling the parents in a letter dated September 28 that the incident was under investigation. A priest from the Diocese talked to Monaghan, who explained that during his 24 years in Mexico, he’d grown accustomed to teenagers openly discussing their sexuality during confession. The adolescents he’d questioned during the quinceañera, among the first Mexican-American children he’d confessed since arriving in the United States, had not been so forthcoming about sexual issues, so he had attempted to elicit responses from them. The priest, determining that Monaghan was not a threat to children, instructed him not to ask such probing questions.

The matter might have died there, had the Diocese bothered informing the parents about the action it had taken. But Morales said two months went by without an answer to her queries. Frustrated, she went to the Diocese office in person, where the priest who had talked to Monaghan informed her that the incident had been caused by a cultural misunderstanding. After two months of waiting, that wasn’t enough for Morales and the other parents, particularly after what they’d learned about the Legion of Christ and the accusations of sexual abuse swirling around its founder, Father Marcial Maciel.

Born in France in 1920, Marcial Maciel Degollado’s large, wealthy family included four uncles who were bishops, prompting the young Maciel to seek a religious calling. From an early age he yearned to start his own religious order; he was kicked out of two seminaries for openly expressing such desires before founding the Legion of Christ in Mexico City in 1941. The Legion has since become the fastest growing order in Catholicism, and now counts more than 350 priests and 2000 seminarians spread out across schools, ministries and seminaries in 20 different countries. Maciel’s posh world headquarters are not far from the Vatican in Rome; he has become the trusted confidant of Pope John Paul II.

Senon Palacioz and many of the Guadalupanos want the Legion of Christ priests out of their church.

Photo by Larry Dalton

From the beginning, the staunch conservative and avowed anti-Communist envisioned a rigid, militaristic order of priests who would declare their total devotion to God and demand absolute obedience from the laity. When World War II ended, the planet divided into camps of good versus evil, the free world versus the Communist, and Maciel’s army of conservative priests flourished, in large part because their political and theological views dovetailed nicely with the values of upper-class Mexican families, many of whom paid good money to send their sons, ages 10 and up, off to join the Legionaries, earning the order the dubious nickname Millionaires of Christ in its country of origin. The pesos rolled in and the order steadily expanded throughout Mexico, Latin America and Europe, using tactics of control considered overly aggressive and even cult-like by some Catholics, including J. Paul Lennon, a former Legion priest who left the order in 1984 and has been a vocal critic ever since.

“The Legion is basically conservative,” Lennon said. “[But] being conservative is not the problem. It is the subtle and gradual control they exert over members’ minds, hearts, lives, decisions and pockets in a cult-like way. That is why they prefer young people and naïve communities.”

The Legion’s U.S. headquarters are located in Orange, Connecticut. The order had attracted little national media attention until Gerald Renner, a religion reporter for the Hartford Courant, wrote a story about the Legion’s purchase of two religious newspapers in 1996. Shortly after the story ran, nine men contacted the Courant and dropped a bombshell. In sworn affidavits, they claimed that Maciel, trusted confidant of the pope, had sexually molested them while they had been teenage seminary students in the Legion during the 1950s.

In the February 1997 story that ran in the Courant, the men described a Maciel startlingly at odds with his ultra-pious image. He insisted on being called Nuestro Padre, “Our Father,” and considered himself a saint on Earth. To the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience required by other orders within the Church, Maciel had added a fourth vow, commanding his young disciples to never speak ill of the Legion or its founder and to inform on anyone who did. That vow prevented the nine men from coming forward for decades. But as reports of sexually abusive priests began to filter through the media in the 1990s, they could no longer remain silent, not after what they alleged Maciel had done to them, not after the Vatican has repeatedly refused to investigate their claims.

The allegations were bizarre and ugly. The men said Maciel claimed to suffer from a disorder that caused semen to accumulate in his testicles, a condition that was quite painful unless relieved by masturbation. This struck the young seminarians as strange, since Maciel himself had taught them that masturbation was a mortal sin, using training methods that included, in addition to self-flagellation, the wearing of cilicio, leather straps with sharp hooks that were wrapped around a young seminarian’s thighs to ward off impure thoughts. Despite these harsh lessons designed to discourage masturbation, the nine men claimed that Maciel had asked each of them individually to lend him a hand with his “problem.” When one of the seminarians complained that the behavior made him feel guilty, Maciel assured him that he had received special clearance from the Vatican.

It was not 2002, when sexual abuse revelations seem to be coming forward on a daily basis. Five years ago, it was a strange, unbelievable 40-year-old story about a priest who had since become one of the most influential men in the Catholic Church. The allegations might have been easier to dismiss if they hadn’t come from such seemingly reliable sources—nine professional men, including a former Legion priest, a literary scholar, a university president, and an instructor at the U.S. Defense Department’s School of Linguistics in Monterey, California. One had made allegations on his deathbed. The nine men weren’t seeking monetary gain, just an investigation by the Vatican into Maciel’s past behavior.

If their going public was supposed to change the Vatican’s stance, it didn’t work. Later that year, Pope John Paul II honored Maciel by naming him as a delegate to the Synod for America. Maciel has repeatedly denied the allegations. A spokesman for the Legion told the SN&R that the charges are false, and referred this reporter to a special Legion Web site set up specifically to refute the allegations at www.legionaryfacts.org. In April of this year, after ABC’s 20/20 news magazine ran a segment on the allegations against Maciel and the Vatican’s continuing refusal to investigate them, some members of the Guadalupe parish received a letter denying the allegations, mailed to them by the Legion’s U.S. headquarters and signed by Maciel himself.

“Before God and with total clarity of conscience I can categorically state that the accusations against me are false,” Maciel wrote in the letter. “I never engaged in the sort of repulsive behavior these men accuse me of, and nothing could be further from my way of dealing with others, as is evident to any of the thousands of legionaries who know me.”

Of course, most of the parishioners who received the letter had no way of knowing that the thousands of Legionaries who have known Maciel have also vowed never to betray him or the Legion.

Morales learned about the allegations against Maciel from Palacioz, who began researching the Legion of Christ after Monaghan removed the Guadalupanos from their longtime service positions. The knowledge of the accusations heightened her fears that something dreadfully wrong had happened to her children during confession. She demanded the Diocese investigate Monaghan more thoroughly. She might as well have been talking to the Vatican.

Palacioz had the same luck trying to get the Guadalupanos re-instated. He and his supporters adamantly believe that the authoritarian style of Legion priests is a poor fit for their parish. They think the Legion was invited in because the immigrant families who make up a large part of the parish are perceived by the Diocese as docile, less likely to complain about priests or the Church. While it is true that serving Spanish-speaking Catholics is the primary mission of the shrine, what about the first- and second-generation immigrants who have called Guadalupe home for most of their lives?

“We are the people responsible for building the church, for raising the funds, for keeping it going,” he fumed. “Now they’re going to come here at the last minute and take it away?”

Frustrated by the Diocese’s stonewalling, Palacioz and Morales took their case to the public. They gathered 600 signatures from parish members on a petition seeking the Legion’s removal. Early last year, 30 of their supporters picketed in front of the church, carrying placards that said, “Legionaries Disease.” They approached all the local media outlets, including the SN&R. They asked their members to boycott charitable donations to the Sacramento Diocese. Palacioz has bothered Weigand so much, the bishop wrote him a letter asking him to never bring the subject up again. Through it all, the Diocese hasn’t budged and the Legion has stayed put.

Legion founder Father Marcial Maciel was accused of sexual misconduct by nine former seminarians in 1996.

“We have been two-weeked to death,” Palacioz said, referring to scheduled meetings with priests and bishops of the Diocese that never happened, phone calls that were never returned, promises that were never kept. The Diocese ensured them that a parish council would be established, with the Guadalupanos adequately represented in it. It hasn’t happened. Until the Legion came, the Church has always issued an annual financial statement. The Diocese promised that the Church would issue a financial report, the first in two years. It still hasn’t been released.

According to Gerald Renner, who has been following the controversy at Our Lady of Guadalupe with interest from his home in Connecticut, such complaints involving the Legion are common in the United States.

“It is remarkable that wherever they show up they cause dissension,” Renner said. “I think that is because they insist on dealing only with their own; they favor members of Regnum Christi over other lay groups.”

In Sacramento, the Soldiers of Christ are analogous to the Regnum Christi, the Legion’s lay membership. The Legion views lay organizations like the Society of Our Lady of Guadalupe as a threat to their control, Renner noted. This hasn’t gone over very well in the United States, where priests and lay community members from a wide number of organizations are accustomed to collaborating.

The Legion, with its worldwide chain of seminaries and schools, is primarily a teaching institution. Most of the U.S. complaints have centered on the order’s takeovers of pre-existing seminaries and schools and its aggressive recruiting tactics. In the November 2000 issue of National Catholic Reporter, Renner found ruffled feathers and bruised egos nearly everywhere the Legion has set foot in the United States: Atlanta, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Connecticut, upstate New York. The controversy in Sacramento appears to be the first involving its takeover of a local parish.

“The Legion may want to have a sample, exemplary parish in the United States to give lie to the fact that they do not do parish work and prefer to work with the elite,” said Lennon, the former Legionary priest. “They certainly are always on the lookout for a beachhead.”

That’s exactly what Palacioz, Morales and other local critics of the Legion are afraid of, that the order is using their church as a base to reach the large number of middle-class Hispanics in the area, folks with enough money to send their kids to Legion schools and seminaries. Last year, a rumor began circulating that the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe was going to be converted into a seminary. Another rumor claimed the Legion was going to sell the church. An article in the Sacramento Bee business section stated that the Legion was scouting around for a site to build a new school.

By May of last year, the situation at Guadalupe was fever-pitched, and Weigand called an impromptu meeting between Diocese officials, the priests and the complaining parishioners. The quiet and moody Monaghan, who had angrily pointed his finger in Palacioz’s chest on one occasion, had by then worn out what little welcome he’d had with his flock. One of the parishioners stood up and said that if Monaghan stayed in the room, they were all leaving. A priest from the Diocese said something to Monaghan, who got up and walked out.

In December, without giving parishioners any reason why, Monaghan was transferred back to his former parish in Mexico.

The Legion stayed.

When the story about the possible sexual abuse coverup by bishops at the Boston Diocese broke in February of this year, Maria Morales once again became distraught. For years, bishops in Boston had been paying abuse victims secret settlements and shuffling sexually abusive priests from parish to parish. Shortly afterward, in April, the Sacramento Bee reported that the Sacramento Diocese had admitted paying a total of $1.3 million in private settlements to alleged sexual abuse victims of 14 former priests over the past 30 years. Morales wonders if the Sacramento Diocese had done the same thing with Monaghan. She and the other parents want the Sacramento Diocese to tell them why Monaghan was sent away so abruptly and where exactly he was sent. Palacioz and his group wanted to know why Weigand had invited the controversial Legion of Christ to Sacramento in the first place. They’ve never really gotten satisfactory answers to these questions, and perhaps they never will.

“Why not?” replied Sacramento Diocese spokesman Father James Murphy when asked why Weigand had invited the Legion in. Murphy was aware of the allegations against Maciel, but said that they had no bearing whatsoever on the performance of individual priests within the order. Despite the fact that Palacioz says he has provided the Diocese with the information, Murphy said he was unaware of the complaints the order had generated throughout the United States.

He also pointed out there’s a drastic shortage of priests going on.

Speak softly, carry a big stick. Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento invited the Legion of Christ priests to Our Lady of Guadalupe without consulting the parishioners.

“Forty-three percent of our priests are 65 or older,” he said, adding that the Legionaries have helped fill vital positions for the Sacramento Valley’s Hispanic-speaking Catholic population, who make up half of the Diocese’s 500,000 members. Father Salvador Gomez, Monaghan’s replacement, “is perfectly capable of carrying on the tradition at Our Lady of Guadalupe,” Murphy insisted. “He is carrying on that tradition, he’s doing a very fine job.”

A small group of parishioners assembled at the church by Gomez and his assistant priest, Father Lino Otero, agreed that the new head priest is doing a fine job. Even Dolores Brisbescas, the president of the Society for the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, conceded that the Legion priests have made improvements, such as performing more Masses and confessions. They recently allowed the Guadalupanos to meet as a group for one Mass per month at the church, and some of the people who served in the Eucharist have been allowed to return, though Brisbescas pointed out not officially as “Guadalupanos.”

“Our church is looking good,” she said, adding that she could only speak for herself, and not all the Guadalupanos. “The pride that used to be here is back.”

Gomez, a stout middle-aged man with a round face framed by tufts of black hair thinning on top, sat confidentially eyeing the small gathering. He doesn’t speak English well and used Otero as an interpreter.

“In reality, most of the people who come to this church want to live in harmony and unity and not worry about these things,” Gomez began. Like most bishops and priests in the Catholic Church these days, he’s got unity on the mind; there’s a sense that with all this talk of unity the Church really is in danger. That’s why Gomez was speaking about harmony and unity during the sermon about Jesus and the Pharisees. “The only thing I have in my mind is to seek harmony and family spirit,” he repeated. “I am willing to do anything to achieve it.”

He offered an olive branch to Palacioz by inviting him to participate in an upcoming festival. Palacioz declined. Informed that the complaining parishioner had taken the bocones remark personally, the priest smiled softly. “When one speaks from the pulpit, each person interprets it in a different way,” he said.

They might be bocones, but Morales and Palacioz still aren’t giving up. They meet regularly with a group of 30 other concerned parishioners who want the Legionaries of Christ out of Sacramento. They want to know where Monaghan was sent. Until then, it’s Our Lady of Infinite Division.

Asked why the Diocese hadn’t responded to Morales’ request for the whereabouts of Monaghan, Murphy explained that once the priest left Sacramento, he became the responsibility of the Legion. That’s one reason why critics of the new sexual abuse policy adopted by the Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas have objected to orders like the Legion not being included within the new guidelines that cover only the nation’s diocesan priests. Priests from orders could theoretically be bounced from parish to seminary to school with no accountability. That makes parents like Morales nervous.

But for an order with a fierce reputation for protecting its own, the Legion isn’t trying very hard to hide Monaghan. A call to the Legion’s U.S. headquarters quickly yielded the priest’s home phone number in Cancun, where he has been reassigned to the same Yucatan Peninsula parish he has worked at for the past quarter-century, aside from his brief stint at Our Lady of Guadalupe. When reached by the SN&R, the memory of being shamed in front of the parishioners and the Diocese when he was asked to walk out of the room is still eating at him a year later.

“I don’t even want to remember how the bishops treated me there,” he said. “The problems at the church existed long before I got there. The bishops made a big mistake. They never told me about the problems. They threw me into a den of lions without telling me there were lions. I felt it was a cheat on their part not to tell me.”

Then came the furor over the quinceañera confessions.

“It was my first weekend there, and I tried to help them like I help the people in Mexico,” Monaghan recalled. In the Yucatan, Monaghan said adolescents tend to speak out about sexual issues during confession. For example, a 15-year-old Yucatan girl experiencing impure thoughts will tell a priest she has a problem, so he can help her with it. Monaghan assumed her hypothetical Mexican-American counterparts would be no different. “It was probably my mistake not to take that into account,” he said.

Monaghan said he was never given a specific reason for his transfer. The Diocese has stated that it had nothing to do with the quinceañera confessions, and pointed out that out of thousands of people who were confessed by Monaghan while he was in Sacramento, this has been the only complaint.

“I got the impression that Father Monaghan didn’t work out that well because he had a shy personality and came off as being cold,” Murphy offered. He reiterated that Father Salvador Gomez, L.C., is doing a fine job. Murphy said Palacioz, Morales and the other parishioners who are still complaining represent only a small percentage of the community. When told that the complaining parishioners probably won’t stop until they get their church back, Murphy sighed with exasperation.

“These people need to let Guadalupe get on with her life,” he said.

In the spirit of harmony and unity, of course.