VATICAN CITY (AP) — The female branch of the scandal-plagued Legionaries of Christ religious order was in turmoil Tuesday following the resignation of its leader and the decision of some 30 members to split from the movement.
Malen Oriol announced in a letter Sunday that she had asked to resign as the assistant to the general director of the Legion, which Pope Benedict XVI took over in 2010 after the order revealed its late founder had sexually molested seminarians and fathered three children.
In her role, Oriol had headed the Legion's branch of consecrated women, some 600 women who live like nuns working in Legion schools, recruiting and fundraising.
Oriol also revealed that a group of consecrated women had decided to leave the movement and live out their vocations under the authority of local bishops — a blow to the Legion that suggests that groups of reformers are now stepping outside the movement because their superiors are refusing to change.
A Vatican investigation in 2010 determined that the Legion's founder, Rev. Marciel Maciel, was a fraud and discovered serious spiritual and psychological abuses within the Legion and its consecrated branch.
Benedict named a trusted Vatican official, Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, to run the Legion and oversee a process of reform and purification to rid it of the abuses. But De Paolis has faced criticism that he is moving too slowly, that the Legion's problematic culture hasn't changed, and that the same superiors who covered up Maciel's crimes remain in positions of authority.
Dozens of priests and upwards of 400 consecrated women from the Legion's lay branch Regnum Christi have left the movement since the revelations of Maciel's double life emerged in 2009.
Most of the priests who have left have become diocesan priests. But most of the consecrated women who have left have simply returned to life as regular Catholics: working, going to school, getting married.
What makes the exodus of the 30 consecrated members significant is that they are seeking to continue living out their religious vocations under bishops — something that is potentially problematic for the Legion's survival since it shows a potential avenue for continuing similar lifestyles outside the Legion, if others were to follow suit.
The Rev. Thomas Berg, an American who left the Legion in 2009, said the only way forward for the Legion is for groups like these to emerge and "step outside the Legion shell and propose a renewed form of religious life."
He noted that there are historical precedents: "Franciscan reform groups have emerged from within the Franciscan family time and again to 'reform' the order and constitute a new kind of Franciscan community," he said in an email.
He said the difference was that the Legion itself wouldn't survive the formation of such groups. "But that is precisely what must happen: the Legion of Christ as we knew it needs to disappear. And a purified, new religious family needs to emerge."
The resignation of Oriol as head of the consecrated branch, while not unexpected, is another blow. Over the past three years, Oriol's four brothers — all of them prominent Legion priests — have left the order.
It wasn't clear if Oriol would join the group of consecrated women who are leaving the movement. Calls placed to the consecrated headquarters in Rome weren't answered Tuesday and a Legion spokesman said he didn't know.
In a statement Tuesday, the Legion confirmed the contents of Oriol's letter and said it wished the consecrated members well in their new lives.
"We are deeply grateful for all the years that they have lived as consecrated members of Regnum Christi," the statement said.
Benedict launched an investigation into the consecrated branch after discovering serious problems with the way the women lived: they had no real canonical protections, and former members complained of spiritual, psychological and emotional abuse stemming from the rigid rules that governed nearly every aspect of their lives.
De Paolis announced in November that the 1,000-plus rules were invalid since they had no legal status and would be whittled down to a core set of norms. He has said the consecrated branch of Regnum Christi must have autonomy from the Legion, but the details of that autonomy haven't been worked out.
The Legion scandal ranks as one of the worst in the 20th-century Catholic Church since Pope John Paul II held Maciel up as a model, even though the Vatican knew for over a decade about credible allegations he was a pedophile.