VATICAN CITY (AP) — The head of the embattled Legion of Christ religious order admitted Tuesday to covering up news that his most prominent priest had fathered a child and announced a review of all past allegations of sexual abuse against Legion priests amid a growing scandal at the order.
The Rev. Alvaro Corcuera wrote a letter to all Legion members in which he admitted he had heard before he became superior in 2005 that the Rev. Thomas Williams, a well-known American television personality, author and moral theologian, had a child. He said he took Williams' word that the rumors were false.
Corcuera said that after becoming superior in 2005, he confirmed Williams' paternity yet did nothing to prevent him from teaching morality to seminarians or preaching about ethics on television, in his many speaking engagements or his 14 books, including "Knowing Right from Wrong: A Christian Guide to Conscience."
Williams, for example, was the keynote speaker at a Legion-affiliated women's conference just last month in the U.S. and was scheduled to speak at another one in October.
Williams admitted last week he had fathered the child after The Associated Press confronted the Legion with the allegation. In a new statement Tuesday, Williams said he had resisted his superiors' encouragement to keep a low profile after the allegations were known to them.
"I foolishly thought that I had left this sin in my past, and that I could make up for some of the wrong I had done by doing the greatest good possible with the gifts God has given me. This was an error in judgment, and yet another thing I must ask your forgiveness for," he wrote, according to the text obtained by the AP.
Williams has not identified the mother or said whether he was supporting the child or involved in the child's life. The Legion has said the child is being cared for.
Revelations of Williams' child and subsequent cover-up have further eroded the Legion's credibility and compounded the scandal at the order, which in 2009 admitted that its late founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel had sexually abused his seminarians and fathered three children with two women. For years, the Legion had denied the abuse allegations and publicly discredited the seminarians who went public with their accusations in 1997.
Maciel, who founded the Legion in 1941 in Mexico, died in 2008.
The scandal is particularly grave given that Maciel was held up as a model for the faithful by Pope John Paul II, who was impressed by the orthodox order's ability to attract money and young men to the priesthood. Maciel's double life, and the continuing problems of the cult-like order, have cast a shadow over John Paul's legacy since the Vatican knew of Maciel's crimes as early as the mid-1950s, yet he continued to enjoy the highest Vatican praise and access until he was finally sanctioned by Rome in 2006.
In 2010, the Vatican took over the Legion after determining that the order itself had been contaminated by Maciel's influence and needed to be "purified" through a process of reform that is under way.
Following an AP investigation, the Legion on May 11 admitted that seven priests were under Vatican investigation for allegedly sexually abusing minors and other sacramental violations, an indication that Maciel's crimes were not his alone. Five of the seven concern sex abuse accusations, the Legion clarified Tuesday. Two concern violations believed to involve using confession or spiritual direction to have inappropriate sexual relations with women.
Corcuera also revealed that a Legion priest is currently under criminal investigation in the U.S. for alleged sex abuse and that three others had been cleared. Three former Legion priests have been referred to civil authorities, he said.
In his letter Tuesday, Corcuera announced that the Legion was going to review all past cases of allegations of sexual abuse to ensure that they were handled properly. Victims of Legion priests and critics of the order have said there are many more cases of abusers which have been well-known to the leadership but covered up for decades.
"Are there other cases waiting to be discovered, more scandals ready to attack your faith and trust? I can never say for sure," Corcuera wrote. "I can, however, tell you that we are following the lead of Pope Benedict XVI in dealing with abuse and sexual misconduct in the Legion."
Corcuera's letter is unlikely to stem the outrage among the members of the Legion's lay branch Regnum Christi, for whom Williams was a major point of reference in the United States and a top public defender of Maciel when the allegations of his crimes were leveled years ago. Many had forgiven the Legion for its decades of deception concerning Maciel, thinking it was an isolated case. The recent revelations show otherwise.
Corcuera said that after confirming in 2005 that Williams had indeed fathered the child, he asked him to start withdrawing from his public work. But only in 2010 did he limit Williams' work as a priest. Williams, however, continued to write books, speak at conventions, author articles and, most significantly, teach morality to seminarians at the Legion's university in Rome. He only stopped teaching in February, abruptly, after a Spanish association of victims of the Legion forwarded the allegations against Williams to the Vatican.
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