By Philip Pullella
ROME (Reuters) - A disgraced Catholic religious order whose late founder lived a double life as a paedophile, womanizer and drug addict officially denounced him on Thursday and apologized to his "many victims".
The Legionaries of Christ, which former members said was run like a cult rooted in secrecy, accused Father Marcial Maciel of "reprehensible and objectively immoral behavior" as head of the order from 1941 until former Pope Benedict removed him in 2006.
Once a darling of the Vatican because it attracted many Catholics to religious vocations and made sizeable financial donations to the Church, the order has been in Vatican receivership since 2010 and came close to being disbanded.
The apology, issued by delegates from around the world meeting in Rome to set a new direction for the order, came a day after a United Nations committee singled it out in a scathing report accusing the Church of ignoring child abuse by priests.
The statement denounced "the magnitude of the evil and scandal caused" by Maciel, who died in 2008, and said the conservative order was now ready to turn a page.
The meeting, which began on January 8 and is due to end in late February, elected Father Eduardo Robles Gil as the order's new leader. Like Maciel, the 61-year-old hails from Mexico.
"We want to express our deep sorrow for the abuse of minor seminarians, the immoral acts with men and women who were adults, the arbitrary use of his authority and of material goods ..." the order said.
BULWARK AGAINST CHURCH LIBERALS
For decades the Vatican dismissed accusations by seminarians that Maciel had abused them sexually, some when they were as young as 12. The order's rules forbade criticizing the founder or questioning his motives.
Pope John Paul II, set to become a saint in April, strongly backed Maciel even as criticism of him mounted and appreciated the order's faster growth than other religious groups.
The order also had many wealthy conservative benefactors who saw it as a bulwark against liberalism in the Church.
In 2006, a year after John Paul's death, a Vatican investigation concluded the previously denied accusations of molestation were true. Pope Benedict ordered Maciel to retire to a life of "prayer and penitence".
After his death, Vatican investigations found Maciel had also fathered several children with at least two different women, visited them regularly and sent them money.
"We are grieved that many victims and other affected persons have waited so long in vain for an apology and an act of reconciliation on the part of Fr. Maciel. Today, we would like to issue that apology as we express our solidarity with these persons," it said.
The order runs private Catholic schools and charitable organizations in 22 countries through its network of some 950 priests and 1,000 seminarians. It operates a Catholic university in Rome and its lay movement, known as Regnum Christi, has around 30,000 members.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella)