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Is it just me or do religions with too many secret societies have too many secrets?

In what appears to be an earnest effort to (finally) get ahead of the sexual abuse scandal in his Church, Pope Benedict XVI is moving to clean up at least one aspect of ecclesiastic criminal conduct. The Pope has ordered an investigation into the administration of a sub-sect in Catholicism called the Legion of Christ. Turns out that this nest of uber-Catholics was founded and led by Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, a Mexican bi-sexual priest with a string of offenses that would make a cartel druglord blush. His list of mortal sins includes: drug abuse, the wholesale plagiarism of a book, financial irregularities within his organization and, the ever popular, sex with both seminarians and female members of his flock. (For bonus points, he had a child by one of them.) On the plus side, he did give up sweets for Lent.

This little episode didn't surface recently amid global tales of clerical transgression. Father Macial's peccadillos have been under investigation since 1956. That's 54 years. Allowing for the glacial movement of the wheels of justice, this is the equivalent of holding the Nuremberg trials in 2002. If you're wondering what was holding up the show, look no further than the usual suspects. It seems that Father Macial had a friend in a very high place. Before Pope John Paul II went knock, knock, knocking on heaven's door, he spent twenty years defending this despicable felon. Apparently the ability to recruit priests (with the offer of candy and a ride in the pope-mobile) and his ability to raise money, trumped morality and obedience to one's vows. When an investigation was launched by the bishop of Mexico City, it was squelched by none other than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger aka Benedict the sixteenth of that name. To be fair, there is a rumor afoot that the order to halt the investigation came directly from JPII. Little messy scandals like this are why a rush to sainthood for the former pope is such a bad idea.

Of greater concern to the Church should be the damage done to her already tattered reputation by the revelation of secret societies within the clergy and the laity. We aren't talking about religious orders of priests and nuns who operate in the open and whose good works are legion. However, super groups like Regnum Christi (a sub-sub set of Father Maciel's "Legion") and Opus Dei have amassed money and power behind closed doors. Rome has been thusfar unable to resist the lure of devout sub-groups with big money and backstage passes to the halls of influence. The RCC has been less tolerant of organizations like the Freemasons or the Oddfellows whose leadership Rome does not control.

The problem with anointing these over-the-top zealots is that, like all poor sinners, they have feet of clay. Revelations of financial misconduct or sexual dalliance among its leaders taint not just the group but Mother Church as well. Considering that Rome has spent 50 years attempting to perfume the smell coming from the Legion of Christ, it becomes difficult to plead ignorance.

Sadly, Benedict has not moved to disband the Legion. A symbiotic relationship stretching back through six pontificates is difficult to sever. Nevertheless it needs to happen. The Vatican must consult a dictionary for the meaning of "catholic". Mine says, "universal, involving all". This isn't Scientology. There aren't levels of devotion. There is no "my faith is stronger than your faith" test. If you're so inclined, become a priest or a nun or a deacon. Forget secret societies and secret handshakes. Nothing good ever comes of meetings held in the dark.

Originally posted to Is It Just Me on Mon May 03, 2010 at 11:34 AM PDT.

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