03 April 2009

Disgraced priest's legacy lives on in Michoacán

Iglesia de Cotija

The News

COTIJA DE LA PAZ, Mich. - Rev. Marcial Maciel, the disgraced founder of a Catholic order known as the Legionaries of Christ, was born in 1920 in this deeply religious community, billed as the cradle of illustrious men. Cotija has produced seven bishops, an estimated 300 priests and even a saint, San Rafael Guízar y Valenica, since its founding by Spanish settlers in the late 1500s.

But of all the prominent native sons, not one has reached the stature of Maciel, says local historian Javier Valencia - in spite of recent acknowledgement by Legion officials that their founder had led a double life in violation of Catholic teachings.

"[Maciel] is the greatest man Cotija has produced - and Cotija has produced many important people," said Valencia, who had known the priest since childhood, prior to Maciel's death last year.

That perception of Maciel is common in Cotija. Maciel is widely viewed as a local benefactor who plowed money into charity projects and public works that helped boost the stature of a municipality that had failed to keep up with other nearby communities economically.

He is also regarded as the product of a conservative Catholic town whose residents stayed loyal to the "madre patria," or homeland. Valencia said that Cotija never embraced independence or revolution and produced many of the generals who took up arms against the government in a Catholic uprising - known as the Cristero Rebellion - that opposed anti-clerical measures of the 1920s.


To this day, fading portraits of San Rafael Guízar y Valencia - Maciel's great-uncle - adorn many doorways lining the road into town. "This home is Catholic!" proclaim signs on windowsills, a warning advising missionaries that they shouldn't bother knocking.

Few in Cotija speak ill of Maciel or care to pass judgment on the misdeeds that have made headlines for more than a decade - fathering a child and allegedly sexually abusing young men, among other things.

"They're lies," said Elena Mejía, 87, who once worked as a domestic helper in the Maciel home.

Others were even more curt.

"You won't get me to say a bad word," said one man in the town center before storming off.

In 2006, the Vatican - which had previously been accused of turning a blind eye to allegations against Maciel and the Legion - stripped Maciel of the right to practice his ministry in public. The Legion itself admitted on Feb. 4 that its founder had fathered a child. Maciel and others in the Legion categorically denied any wrongdoing, but he had long been accused of sexually abusing young men in his religious order and was alleged to have absolved his accomplices in confession - a violation of canon law punishable by excommunication. He died in January 2008 and is buried in Cotija.

Even those who have heard the stories about Maciel - and don't entirely dismiss the allegations against him - refuse to change their perceptions.

"It really doesn't matter to me," said local historian Elena Silva Trejo, whose father used to make Maciel's suits. "There are two sides to every coin. You have to look at them both."

The other side of the coin, she said, is the legacy of charity and public works projects brought about by Maciel and the Legion in Cotija and towns well beyond.

The projects started out small in Cotija. Maciel - who would never permanently live in Cotija again after finishing his seminary studies but would visit frequently - gave away serapes and small figurines of Christ, according to Silva Trejo. Some residents recall him giving away cash.

As the Legion grew in stature and wealth, the projects grew too.

The Legion, according to religious observers, was founded with practically nothing in 1941, but flourished as Maciel courted the wealthy - a group that was largely not being ministered to by existing orders.

The Legion founded elite and expensive private schools - the Instituto Cumbres and Universidad Anáhuac, to name two - and expanded abroad.

It supported charity projects such as the Mano Amiga schools for children in poor barrios, but was still primarily associated with wealth, status and exclusivity.

A feature in the Feb. 9 edition of the magazine Milenio Semanal even alleged that those who would not join the Legion out of conviction would do so out of fear. "Confronting the Legion implied, until recently, ostracism in a country where financial security passes more through contacts than through talent."

Legion priest Rev. Michael Barry, a Maryland native who has worked in Cotija for the past five years, said that Maciel promoted the view of working with leaders who would use their resources to do good works.


Still, critics would quickly begin to deride the Legion as "The Millionaires of Christ." And some of the Legion's money flowed back into Cotija.

Maciel helped pay for the restoration of an old sanctuary in a hamlet known as El Barrio, which had been home to the final Mass in 1929 before soldiers in the Cristero Rebellion laid down their arms. The Legion later built a large retreat center on a hill overlooking Cotija.

Today, a steady stream of visitors affiliated with the Legionaries of Christ helps boost the local economy, according to Alberto Contreras, a municipal government official.

In recent years, a Legion foundation worked with the Michoacán governor to build a museum, cultural center and a health clinic that offers doctors appointments for just 10 pesos. A private university that charges low tuition fees was also built with Legion money.

These projects haven't been forgotten. "He did a lot for this place," said campesino Juan Espinosa, who was selling green beans in the town plaza when interviewed. "There have been so many works."

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