By Shelley Broxton
Around 9:45p.m., when everyone else in the Catholic minor seminary was in bed, twelve year old Juan Vaca was called to his superior’s bedroom. The reason, Vaca stated, was to perform what he had been told was as an act of charity.
“He pretended to be sick in his lower sexual parts because of semen retention,” Vaca said, referring to his former superior, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado. “He told me to masturbate him to relieve his pain, and he also masturbated me.”
Vaca says this was the initial sexual offense. It continued in different places for the next 10 years of his life.
Vaca, now 72, is a former priest who currently teaches sociology and psychology courses at Mercy College. He displays acts of courage and faith as he continues to come forward as a witness to the debauchery within a Catholic community, more specifically, within the Roman Catholic Legion of Christ congregation.
“When you know the truth, you are supposed to witness to that truth,” Vaca says in explaining the responsibility he has to society. “Not just for me but for the many other children, men, and women abused. Also, for those who have been ignorant to what has been going on.”
Over the years, scandals surrounding the Catholic community have become common. The Legion of Christ, established in Mexico in 1941, and its founder, the late Maciel, are linked to many of the accusations that have spread. Today the Legion of Christ organization has over 800 priests, 2,500 major and minor seminaries, and houses in 22 countries. Maciel, who was a very powerful influence and well respected priest within the Roman Catholic Church, has been accused- by various people around the world- of everything from drug addiction to incestuous acts with his children fathered out of wedlock.
Out of the many accusations, Vaca’s story of sexual abuse is just one.
In 1947, at the age of 10, Vaca was personally recruited by Maciel into a minor seminary in Mexico City. Vaca was at the seminary for two years before he moved from Mexico to Spain to continue his education. Three months later, Vaca says, the sexual abuse by Maciel began.
“For me, Father Maciel was the model of holiness. He was my superior, confessor, mother, and father – my everything,” Vaca says, as he remembers being isolated from his family during that time. “I’m sure I couldn’t get an erection. I was completely petrified.”
Vaca lived in Spain for three years before he made another transfer to a seminary in Rome. There he was to complete his studies in order to becoming a priest. However, after ten years of being molested, Vaca began to rebel. He confronted Maciel about the sexual abuse and wrote a 12-page summary of the entire experience with intent of sending it to the Vatican authorities of the Roman Catholic Church. As a result, Vaca’s ordination was delayed. The letter was discarded, and he was sent back to Spain where he worked various jobs within the congregation for the next six years.
“After all those years of working so hard and not saying a word to anyone, Maciel assumed that I would keep quiet for the rest of my life.” Vaca says. “In order for him to continue controlling me, I was called back to Rome to be ordained.”
By this time, Vaca no longer wanted to become a priest. He said he expressed a lack of interest to Maciel, but Vaca’s parents had already come from Mexico to Rome for his ordination. He only accepted out of pressure.
Vaca became a priest and was appointed vice director of a minor seminary in Spain. Shortly after, he was informed of another superior, in the same seminary, who had been accused of molesting seminarians. Vaca reported the claims to the authorities within the organization.
“When he was 14 years old, he was also abused,” Vaca explained. “He was repeating what happened to him and our stories were similar.”
To rectify the situation, the priest in question was transferred to work in the Yucatan Peninsula. Vaca then helped to clean up the situation at the seminary in Spain.
As a reward for helping to keep the matter concealed, Vaca was appointed the major superior in the United States, where he continued working for the Legion of Christ, located in Connecticut. However, it wasn’t long after being in the United States that Vaca became frustrated all over again. He continued to hear accusations being brought up against Maciel and could no longer tolerate the minor repercussions. Vaca eventually left the congregation and moved to Long Island, where he continued to function as a parish priest.
In Long Island, Vaca worked under a different bishop. He went to his new superior and made him aware of what had been going on within the Legion of Christ. Vaca was encouraged to write another 12 page report on the personal incidents between him and Maciel. This time, the report was sent to the Vatican.
“Nothing happened!” Vaca exclaimed regarding the response he received from the Vatican authorities. “Another two years went by and I sent another letter. Still, not even a courtesy note.”
Vaca says investigations of Maciel were being covered up by the Catholic Church for several reasons. One was cash bribes from Maciel to officials within the Vatican to keep quiet. Another was the close alliance Maciel had with the Pope John Paul II.
“Pope John Paul II once made a statement to the media that Father Marcial Maciel was an ideal guide to the youth.” Vaca recalled. “I wondered why the Pope would say that about a criminal and monster like him.”
Vaca’s only rational was the Vatican’s need to save face for the sake of the church’s reputation.
In 2005, Maciel stepped down from his position as superior. The next year, he was invited to live a quiet life in prayer and penance. On January 30, 2008, at the age of 87, Father Marcial Maciel died.
Nevertheless, Maciel’s victims, including Vaca, continue to live for justice against the Legion of Christ congregation and the Vatican. To this day, many of the people claim to still live with the mess Maciel left behind and refuse to allow the Vatican to sweep it under a rug.
“We won’t go away,” says Vaca.
Vaca says the sexual abuse between him and Maciel stopped in 1961. However, after he came forward with his story, the assassination of his character began. He believes defamation of his character- caused by authorities within The Legion- was the reason he lost his full time job. Since then, he has only held part time positions. Ten years of therapy is how Vaca has kept his sanity during what has been, for him, a never ending trauma.
“They have to pay for what they have done, not only by asking for forgiveness,” which Vaca says the Vatican has. “They have to repair the damages.”
Justice, for Vaca, would be for the Vatican and The Legion to profess the wrongs that have been committed. He is requesting that the Vatican ask for forgiveness from society and reform the Legion of Christ congregation.
“Everyone needs some kind of religious foundation,” Vaca says. “I still believe in the sacraments. I just no longer have faith in the men behind the robes.”