Rome, Italy, Jan 21, 2020 / 03:48 pm (CNA).- The Legionaries of Christ on Jan. 20 opened its 2020 Ordinary General Chapter in Rome, which convenes every six years with the duty to elect the general government for the order and to address the most important matters related to the mission and identity of the congregation.
The opening of the general chapter comes a week after Pope Francis dismissed from the clerical state a Legionary priest, Fernando Martinez Suárez, for sexual abuse, and a month after an internal commission of the Legion published a report saying that since its founding in 1941, 33 priests of the congregation had committed sexual abuse of minors, victimizing 175 children.
One of the chapter fathers has already voluntarily decided not to participate in the chapter because of his connection to the now-laicized former priest and his alleged mishandling of abuse cases.
This will also be the first general chapter meeting since Pope Francis approved new constitutions for the troubled congregation in Nov. 2014, following an extraordinary general chapter earlier that year. At that meeting, the current general director, Father Eduardo Robles-Gi, received mandates to implement changes in the legionary formation process and to implement safe environment policies for the care and protection of minors.
In July 2014, Pope Francis appointed Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, SJ to be pontifical advisor for the Legion.
In addition to assessing the last six years, the 2020 General Chapter will elect the new general director, six councilors, and a general administrator. Other topics of discussion will include the formation of seminarians, advances in support of victims of sexual abuse, and possible coverup, negligence or omission in relation to past abuse by Legionary priests.
A total of 66 Legionary priests with voice and vote will participate, 12 for the first time. They represent the congregation’s nine territories— Chile-Argentina, Brazil, North America, Spain, Western and Central Europe, Italy, Mexico, Monterrey, Columbia-Venezuela— and the delegation of Rome and the Holy Land.
One of the chapter fathers, Father Eloy Bedia Díez, announced Jan. 18 that because of his connection to the recently laicized Legionary priest, he would step aside and not participate in the general chapter. Bedia was territorial director of Mexico from 1992 to 2000 and oversaw personnel movements at that time. He has denied having any awareness of Martinez’s history.
Pope Francis on Jan. 13 dismissed Fernando Martínez Suárez, a priest of the Legionaries of Christ, from the clerical state after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith found Martinez guilty of the sexual abuse of minors.
Martinez, 79, abused at least six girls, ages 6 to 11, between 1991 and 1993 when he directed the Cumbres Institute in Cancún.
He was also accused of other acts of abuse, including that of a boy between the ages of 4 and 6 at the Cumbres Lomas Institute in Mexico City in 1969.
The Legion released a statement on the matter of Martinez Jan. 20, saying that the former priest never exercised ministry in the North American territory.
“The Congregation will cooperate with an investigation, in coordination with the competent dicastery of the Holy See, in order to identify the persons responsible for negligence or coverup in this case,” the Legion said Jan. 20.
“We are ashamed of the abuses committed by Fernando Martinez Suárez, the Congregation’s negligence in handling past accusations, and the failure to give adequate attention to victims. We again ask the victims and their families for forgiveness,” the Legionaries of Christ in the Territory of Mexico said in a separate statement.
Martinez had himself been abused by Fr. Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, in Ontaneda and Rome in 1954, when Martinez was 15.
Maciel has been found to have abused at least 60 minors, lived a double life, sexually abused seminarians, and fathered children. The December report from the Legion found that nearly two-thirds of the 175 victims identified were either victims of Father Maciel, or were victims of his victims.
In 2006 the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI, removed Maciel from public ministry and ordered him to spend the rest of his life in prayer and penance. The Vatican congregation decided not to subject him to a canonical process because of his advanced age.
In 2010, Pope Benedict appointed then-Archbishop Velasio de Paolis as the papal delegate to the Legion of Christ to oversee its reform. De Paolis, who died in 2017, has been accused of refusing to punish or even investigate Martinez or the superiors who covered up his crimes, according to reporting from the Associated Press.
No known sexual abuse in a minor seminary of the Legion has taken place since 2012, and its minor seminaries underwent reform in 2015.
Martinez will remain a member of the Legion of Christ. He had been ordained a priest in 1964.