“When we confront the reality of sexual abuse, it is helpful to keep certain complementary values in mind: compassion and solidarity with the victims, the responsibility to protect people who are under our pastoral care, the right of the accused to a due process, the promotion and defense of justice, and – keeping in mind that sexual abuse is a behavior that will never be tolerated – mercy and support of our brothers who are guilty of this crime,” wrote Fr. Sylvester Heereman in a Dec. 5 letter.
“Finally, we should see this from the point of view of Christ, who is capable of making all things new. The last word belongs, not to evil, but to him.”
The letter was sent to all members of the Legion of Christ shortly before its general chapter, which will establish a new constitution and elect new leadership.
Fr. Heerman outlined what the Legion has done to deal with sex abuse, as well as “the principles that guide the actions of the Legion in the prevention of sexual abuse and in responding to allegations made against any of our brothers.”
The letter comes the same day the North American territorial director announced that it has no reason to doubt the truthfulness of sex abuse allegations against one of its former novice instructors, Fr. William Izquierdo.
Fr. Heereman said the announcement “confronts us with the painful and horrifying reality of sexual abuse of minors by members of our congregation.” He acknowledged that abuse, especially that committed by a priest or consecrated person, “brutally obscures the light of the Gospel.”
The director of the North American territory, Fr. Luis Garza, wrote in a separate letter that he was informed of an allegation against Fr. Izquierdo in July 2012, committed when he was a novice instructor in Connecticut – a position he held from 1982 to 1994. An independent investigation concluded in August 2013, and its findings were presented in October.
Fr. Izquierdo is now 85 and suffers from advanced dementia; he has not exercised ministry since 2008. Fr. Garza said he would be “moved to an assisted living facility where he will receive proper treatment.”
Fr. Heereman's letter noted that “clear steps” have been taken against abuse of minors throughout the Legion's territories, and that the upcoming general chapter will include reports of progress from each area.
He offered a diagnosis of the congregation: of the 1,133 priests who have been ordained in the Legion, 35 have been accused of the sexual abuse of minors. In 14 of those cases, it was determined that sexual abuse did not occur: 10 of the accused were innocent, and four committed imprudent behavior, but not abuse. Nine other priests were found guilty and punished canonically; two had already left ministry; and 10 cases remain under review.
Fr. Heeremen added that six allegations of sexual misconduct by superiors against adults under their authority, including those against the Legion's founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel, had been levied.
These figures indicate that fewer than four percent of Legion priests have been accused of sexual impropriety, and fewer than one percent have been found guilty of sexual abuse.
“Today I can assure one and all that we have put the necessary means in place to ensure that no member of the congregation can have ministerial contact with minors if we have information that indicates that he has committed a crime of sexual abuse,” Fr. Heeremen said.
He emphasized that steps have been taken in the Legion both for preventing sexual abuse and handling accusations. The order has sought advice from the Holy See, dioceses, and other congregations about how to prevent and respond to abuse.
Principles gleaned from that advice include: handling allegations at a more local level to ensure that “the civil and ecclesiastical laws of each country” are complied with; proper selection of candidates for the congregation; codes of conduct; clear procedures, and care for both victims and accused; prioritizing victims and the prevention of future occurrences through publicizing allegations when necessary, in spite of “scandal and the damage to the reputation of the priest”; the presumption of innocence; and the expulsion of the guilty in formation, and the laicization or restriction on ministry of those guilty who are ordained.
“The victims should be at the center of our attentive care,” Fr. Heereman wrote. “We must ask ourselves how we can help these persons to rediscover life and regain trust in Jesus Christ and in the Church. We should all feel responsible for ensuring that in the Legion of Christ there is not room for ambiguity with respect to protecting the innocence of minors who are under our pastoral care. This issue will need to be addressed in the general chapter.”
As a Christian response to sexual abuse, he recommended care for victims as a priority; proper discernment by seminarians; willingness to listen to and care for victims; and the obligation not to remain silent about abuse.
“May the Lord grant us all the grace of following the paths of the Gospel, of faithfully observing his commandments and of configuring our lives with the mystery of the Lord's cross,” Fr. Heereman concluded.
“May he, the God of all consolation, help us bring peace and the light of the Gospel to the men and women he has entrusted to our pastoral care.”
The acting general director of the Legion of Christ has shared the steps the order has taken to prevent sexual abuse and to respond to its allegations, focusing on the gravity of abuse and its victims' suffering.
Sexual Abuse, Legionaries of Christ