Pope acts against incest priest's group

Immensely wealthy Catholic organisation, set up by controversial Mexican cleric and favoured by John Paul II, likely to be closed down

The Legionaries of Christ, the Roman Catholic group that combines an estimated £21bn fortune with intense moral turpitude and extreme conservatism, is facing its nemesis this month. For years the organisation was protected by John Paul II, the Polish pope, and his former secretary Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, Archbishop of Krakow. Now the reputation of Father Marcial Maciel, a Mexican who founded the group in 1941 when he was studying for holy orders, is at last falling victim to the reforming drive of John Paul II's German successor, Benedict XVI.

Incestuous father of three – or perhaps six – children, serial paedophile, morphine addict, lover of la dolce vita, and pretend CIA agent, Maciel, who died in 2008, aged 87, built up a huge religious empire. It commanded the allegiance of 750 priests and 2,500 seminarians from 39 countries in the Legion proper, with 70,000 members in a lay offshoot, Regnum Christi, the Kingdom of Christ, and 131,000 students in its schools and universities.

The militaristic name of the organisation recalls Mexico's blood-soaked 1920s, chronicled by Graham Greene, when the Cristeros, loyal to religious traditions, rose up in revolt against the country's anti-clerical governments. There are several parallels with the early days of the secretive Spanish-based organisation Opus Dei, another favourite of John Paul II's. The reputation of the Polish pontiff cannot but take a knock as the true story of Maciel and his Legion is revealed.

Benedict often expressed his distaste for Maciel, whose early predilection for paedophilia was detected but not acted upon by Rome.

The Pope finally ordered him in 2006 to cease performing religious services in public and to undertake a "life of prayer and penitence" for his sins. Since then, Pope Benedict, who visits Britain next month, has reinforced his solid but hitherto unacknowledged record of extirpating abuse in the church by his attitude to the Legion. In May, the Vatican said that Maciel had led a double life "devoid of scruples and authentic religious sentiment".

Referring to the Legion's practice of imposing on its members a "fourth vow" – in addition to the three traditional ones of poverty, chastity and obedience – which demanded unconditional and uncomplaining acceptance of what Maciel said, the Vatican said: "By pushing away and casting doubt upon all those who questioned his behaviour... he created around him a defence mechanism that made him unassailable for a long period, making it difficult to know his true life."

The Pope has now given Archbishop Velasio De Paolis, an expert on running religious orders and a financial specialist, full powers over the Legion. He is getting down to work, and the Legion is unlikely to survive in any recognisable form.

Benedict is tacitly repudiating the attitudes of John Paul II and Archbishop Dziwisz. The late pope had called Maciel "an efficacious guide to youth", and applauded his gift for attracting young men to the depleted ranks of the priesthood. Senior figures in the church, who were often the recipients of the Legion's financial largesse, rejoiced in his genius for fundraising and fortune building.

Maciel's early associates included Miguel Aleman, Mexico's president from 1946-52 and the creator of his country's tourist industry, and went on to include his compatriot Carlos Slim, the world's richest man and owner of a big stake in The New York Times. In a long investigation of the Legion, the National Catholic Reporter of Kansas City identified Mr Slim as "a major Legion supporter". He was also close to the Garza-Sada family in Mexico, which controls a billion-dollar empire based in the northern Mexican industrial metropolis of Monterrey. The Garza family, though divided on the question of the Legion, is deeply embedded in it, as Luis Garza's position at the head of the Grupo Integer, the Legion's management wing, shows. In the world of the arts, his contacts included Placido Domingo, the Spanish tenor who grew up in Mexico, and Mel Gibson, the actor and director.

Politically, he was closely linked with the far right in the US, mixing with Jeb Bush, brother of George W Bush, Rick Santorum, a former US senator, and Thomas Monaghan, the Domino's Pizza magnate who paid for the new cathedral in Nicaragua's capital, Managua, which replaced the one that was destroyed in the 1972 earthquake.

After surviving constant accusations of sex with young men, Maciel took up with women late in life. Raul Gonzalez and his younger brother Cristian were born to Maciel and Blanca Lara, a domestic servant, whom Maciel met in 1976 when she was 19 and he 56. He told her his name was Raul Rivas and that he was a CIA agent and a security man for oil companies. The two boys and Omar – a son she had had from a previous relationship and whom he adopted – were brought up in a house he bought for her in Cuernavaca. In a recent television interview, Raul claimed: "When I was seven years old, I was lying down with him like any boy, any son with his father. He pulled down my pants and tried to rape me." He was later sent to a boarding school in Ireland.

Maciel had at least one other liaison. A few years after meeting Blanca, he met Norma Hilda Baños in Acapulco. In 1987, when she was 26, she bore his daughter, also named Norma Hilda. At times their father took his children on trips to Europe. His son Raul is now suing the Legionaries of Christ in the US for their part in allowing Maciel to maintain an incestuous relationship with him for many years.

Papal audience

The late John Paul II gives his blessing to Father Marcial Maciel in 2004. Senior figures in the church benefited from the huge fortune amassed by Maciel's Legionaries of Christ

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