Church Trial Begins for Priest Accused of Homosexual Rape

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by Martin Barillas  •  •  July 13, 2020   

Legion of Christ holds its breath awaiting case's disposition

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MEXICO CITY ( - At the request of the Legion of Christ (LC), the metropolitan archdiocese of Mexico has begun a canonical process for Fr. Antonio Rodríguez Sánchez, a Legionnaire priest who has been accused of sexually abusing minors at a Mexican seminary.

The Legion of Christ has been marked by scandal for years

ACI Prensa reported that Legion Press spokesman Pablo Pérez de la Vega noted that the congregation had indicated in January that a process could be expected regarding Fr. Rodríguez Sánchez. The report said that in a July 5 e-mail, papal nuncio Bp. Franco Coppola has asked that "anyone who has information regarding this case and [who wishes] to help in bringing about justice" should contact the judicial vicar of the Mexico City archdiocese, Fr. Andrés García Jasso.

According to ACI Prensa, the Legion spokesman said that the congregation had asked for an independent ecclesiastical judge to be named and is grateful that the Mexico City archdiocese has accepted the role.

Fr. Rodríguez Sánchez has been restricted from any public ministry and is currently living at an LC residence in Spain. In a Jan. 24 missive, the Legion of Christ (LC) updated its "Report 1941–2019 on the Sexual Abuse of Minors," which chronicled the sexual abuses and improprieties committed by its founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel, and other priests of the congregation.

The update read:

The congregation's 2019 investigation into past cases of abuse discovered various indications of possible sexual abuse of minors by Fr. Rodríguez [Sánchez] when he was the rector of the minor seminary in El Ajusco, Mexico, between 1983–1988. The major superiors of the Legionaries of Christ decided to initiate a formal preliminary investigation according to canon law (canon 1717) and according to the congregation's safe environment processes and procedures.

A final report on Fr. Rodríguez Sánchez will be shared by the archdiocese with LC and the Vatican representative in Mexico City.

While Fr. Rodríguez Sánchez also has a history of service in the United States, the congregation declared that it has not received any accusations of misconduct during his time there. According to the Jan. 24 LC statement, Fr. Rodríguez Sánchez was born in 1954 and was ordained in 1983. He served as prefect of studies, confessor, spiritual director and professor at the LC Novitiate and College of Humanities in Cheshire, Connecticut. He later became prefect of studies from 1997–1998 and a professor, in 2000, at Thornwood — a school formerly operated by LC in New York. During that time, he was involved in "pastoral ministry with adults and families, particularly in Syracuse, New York," according to the statement.

Father Maciel never admitted to his crimes, dying at the age of 87 in 2008.

In "Report 1941–2019," which was published in December 2019, LC admitted to 175 cases of abuse of minors, including the 60 cases attributed to Fr. Maciel alone. Even while he had long been dogged by accusations of sexual improprieties with seminarians, illegal drug use and siring several children, Fr. Maciel continued to be well-accepted at the Vatican, especially during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.

According to the National Catholic Reporter, he sent "streams" of money to officials at the Vatican Curia. Father Maciel founded LC in 1941 in Mexico. It later expanded into 22 countries, including the United States. Along with lay apostolate Regnum Christi, LC founded numerous schools, seminaries and universities.

LC and its defenders steadfastly denied accusations leveled against Fr. Maciel until 2006, when Pope Benedict XVI intervened and ordered him "to conduct a reserved life of prayer and penance, renouncing every public ministry." The Vatican's investigation into Fr. Maciel was begun by Benedict before his election to the papacy while serving under Pope John Paul II as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and dean of the College of Cardinals.

Father Maciel never admitted to his crimes, dying at the age of 87 in 2008. He was never laicized and never stood canonical trial. He reportedly refused on his death bed a last confession and holy unction. In 2010, Benedict removed the head of LC and imposed a papal delegate to govern the congregation.

Mexico has also been rocked by revelations that other LC priests stand accused. Father Fernando Martínez Suárez, 66, is accused of sexually abusing or raping girls as young as 6 while serving at a school in Cancun, a resort city in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Mexican television presenter Ana Lucia Salazar, 30, for example, accused Martínez Suárez in 2019 of abusing her when she was 8 years old. She said that she and her family put LC on notice in 1992 about the incident. They were told by LC superiors, she said, that priests are men and are prone to error. Her parents decided not to follow up with criminal proceedings out of concern for possibly causing her more trauma.

In another case, an LC statement noted that former Legionnaire priest José María Sabín Sabín, 62, was accused of sexual abuse of minors while serving as rector of the LC school at El Ajusco from 1988–1992. He was then rector of the University of Mayab in the Yucatan Peninsula from 1995–2012.

He never served in the United States. He left LC in 2015 and abandoned the priesthood. In a statement, LC recognized that Mexico's current laws and statute of limitations prevent a criminal prosecution; nevertheless, LC is seeking "a way to press charges and will collaborate with authorities that decide to prosecute the case."

In January, LC released a statement that it is "ashamed" of the abuses Martínez Suárez committed that were due to the congregation's "negligence in managing complaints in the past and adequately responding to victims." Announcing that Martínez Suárez was dismissed from the clerical state, LC offered apologies to the victims and their families. "Your suffering hurts and we want to alleviate it," it said.

Legion of Christ and its defenders steadfastly denied accusations leveled against Fr. Maciel until 2006, when Pope Benedict XVI intervened and ordered him 'to conduct a reserved life of prayer and penance, renouncing every public ministry.'

Cases involving the Legion in Italy have called into question the congregation's dedication to turning over a new leaf. Former LC priest Vladimir Reséndiz Gutiérrez was accused of raping a 12-year-old boy from 2006–2008 at school in Gozzano, Italy. Once LC was informed of accusations against him, Reséndiz was removed from a seminary in Venezuela in 2011. In 2013, he was laicized. Following a trial in Italy, he was convicted in March 2020 and sentenced to seven years in prison after being found guilty in the first degree.

In addition, he and others are facing trial on charges that they attempted to extort Yolanda Martinez, the mother of one of Reséndiz Gutiérrez's victims. Martinez taped a 2011 phone call to Cdl. Velasio de Paolis in which she told him that lawyers for LC had offered a settlement of €12,500 in exchange for her son retracting his accusations. Cdl. de Paolis (who died in 2017) had been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to oversee the Legion and ensure reforms.

On the tape, Cdl. de Paolis apparently chuckles upon hearing of the offer, telling Martinez that she shouldn't sign but work out an agreement without attorneys: "Lawyers complicate things. Even Scripture says that among Christians we should find agreement." Reséndiz Gutiérrez never admitted to crimes committed against Martinez's son, but did admit to sexually abusing an Austrian boy.

Fr. Marcial Maciel, founder of Legion of Christ

In 2013, Martinez's son, 24, recounted to a psychologist the abuse at Reséndiz Gutiérrez's hands and repeated his prior accusations to prosecutors in Italy. Evidence obtained by the prosecutors showed that the Legion knew about accusations against Reséndiz Gutiérrez.

Hiding the accusations from outside Church officials and law enforcement, the Legion reassigned Reséndiz Gutiérrez to Venezuela, while a cover-up involved complicity by LC priests in Rome and Mexico too. The trial over the alleged extortion case is still ongoing, while lawyers for Reséndiz Gutiérrez are expected to appeal his conviction for the sexual-abuse case.

In February 2020, the Legionnaires of Christ elected Fr. John Connor, 51, as their new superior. He already faces questions over his leadership.

As LC director for North America, he was criticized for his handling of accusations made against former Legionnaire priest Michael Sullivan.

Sullivan was accused by several women of inappropriate behavior during his time in Texas (2009–2016), prompting an ongoing investigation by the congregation. Sullivan left LC and the priesthood in April 2020.

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