A note to the reader: Despite the recent proliferation of scandals plaguing the Catholic Church in the past few decades, the one that stands head and shoulders above the rest is that of a Mexican priest, Marcial Maciel. At the age of only 14, he founded an order of priests, the Legionaries of Christ, and a lay movement Regnum Christi.
In the period of only 60 years, he managed to open hundreds of elite private schools and universities around the globe and to befriend some of the most powerful men and women on the planet, including popes, presidents, and cardinals. The impressive growth of the Legionaries of Christ, as well as the caliber of young men it attracted (such as von Habsburg royalty), seemed to prove that this was indeed a work of God.
But that was far from the truth, and in 2006 Pope Benedict XVI forced Marcial to retire from active ministry as a priest. Over the next years, the world would learn that he had been sexually abusing seminarians and that he had fathered 6 children through 3 different women.
His Magnum Opus was in creating a select group of mostly weak priests that he kept in power during his entire reign of 60 years. By convincing them that he was nearly divine, he was able to deceive them into believing that belittling, bullying, threatening and abusing their subjects was a work of God when in fact it was just the best method to allow him free reign to do whatever he pleased without being questioned.
Given the gravity of the founders immorality, in 2010 the Vatican named a Cardinal to oversee a complete reform of the order, which drew to a conclusion in 2014 and was supposed to have been an opportunity for healing to occur for the victims, as well as a chance for the order to make a fresh start.
However, grave psychological, emotional and spiritual abuses were committed by some of the order’s leaders and have never been recognized except in very isolated cases. As a result, thousands of men, most who have since left the order, remain deeply scarred even years later.
The inability of the leadership of the Legionaries of Christ to recognize these grave wrongs exercised by some of their priests in the name of God not only makes it very hard for these victims to find healing and closure but also casts an unfair negative shadow on countless good priests still in the order that work hard to serve those in their care.
Part of the trouble for so many of these victims (and indeed myself) is the inability to point to anything in particular that had destroyed their identity. No one except those who had experienced it could ever quite understand why they were broken. It is especially difficult because not everyone left the order broken, nor were the effects of a particular priest the same on different subjects.
But what is constant is that there remain hundreds of deeply traumatized men, and they deserve to be freed from the jail they were put in.
This open letter to a priest who was my novice instructor (think drill instructor for a 2-year boot camp) is my hope to elicit a path for healing and closure for my “brothers in Christ”.
Dear Fr. Julio,
Fr. Marcial Maciel, otherwise known as “Nuestro Padre”, used to say that there is more than one way to kill a person. He was referring to the sometimes permanent damage from just a few words that cut deep into the heart.
No truer words ever came out of a maniacal pedophile priest.
Of course, he said it as a way to protect himself from being found out. If he could make himself the victim, then he could sick the bloodthirsty wolves dressed as priests upon those poor first victims who dared to raise up a voice against him.
He ingeniously created an entire Catholic religious order of priests so that he would have a constant source of fresh blood: history will show just how many rows of corpses he has left in his wake.
Protected by weak men he had put in permanent power, he and those around him consumed boy after innocent boy. Their youthful dreams of sacrificing their lives for something greater than themselves now drowned in a pool of their own blood.
I too was once a boy.
How it all began
Fr Julio, I shall forever remember standing in front of the Greyhound bus that would take me to you.
Just 18, my hands clutched a worn grey suitcase filled with the hope of doing something truly great with my life. While my friends went off to college, found someone to settle down with and had kids, I would train my body and soul, I would study and sacrifice for years, even for decades. I was convinced that somehow, I was going to do something great with my life and that I would help deal a death blow to seemingly unbreakable forces of evil such as child and sex trafficking and the pornography industry. Like a Jedi warrior, there was no limit to the sacrifice and years I was going to dedicate preparing for this death match. And you would teach me.
As I boarded in a trance, the tear-filled eyes of my parents contemplated how they were not allowed to see me for the next two years, and that we would only speak 6 times in the same span of time.
What they didn’t know is that you would assess their financial and social capital and find them lacking.
There were two classes, you see, and we belonged to the second one. We were a large, poor family who could not possibly be of any use. I was destined, and you told me that almost as soon as you met me, to remain a simpleton, part of a large group of second-class citizens in the Legion.
You, however, were important. That is why they made you a superior from the 1st year that you entered the seminary years before. That is why you remained a superior for nearly the entirety of the next 30 or so years, up until just now.
If I had known, as I stepped up into the bus, the hell that I would go through for the next 15 years because of you and others like you, I would have broken down and sobbed uncontrollably.
But I would still have sat down on that bus.
This is not a story of condemnation but of forgiveness and redemption.
Climbing straight into hell
You see, I’ve since learned that there are several ways to confront evil.
The truth is that few men ever actually set out to accomplish it: it’s more of a side effect of many poor or selfish decisions. I think you once told me that. Happiness is only ever found as a result of seeking goodness, but evil’s pointed index finger is always beckoning us to take just one step closer.
Most of us knew when we had taken a step in the wrong decision. You made sure to point that out for us, at least for me. When you ripped my bed sheets off because I hadn’t made the bed perfectly, you were fatherly enough to yell at me for 30 minutes in the hallway as everyone walked by.
I’m sure you don’t remember those moments because they were so frequent, but even after a deep wound heals, it still leaves a scar. If you want to know, you can come and count my scars.
You said your goal was to humble me by humiliating me. I thought I was a tough guy then and could handle the blows.
But these blows could not be blocked by holding my hands up to my face or covering my head. Your blows went deeper – to my soul. You punched to make me stronger you said, but each icy emotional blow drove deeper into my soul, and the cold that we endured in that freezer of a building began permeating my soul too. Soon, it was not just my body that was shivering.
Honestly, I never knew how many rules there were to become a good enough version of myself, to become something that God could finally deem worth loving.
I wished I had known that before so that I could have lived a better life and been more prepared for those two years. But no matter how many rules I memorized, you managed to have another ten ready for me.
You were right, though. Folding the yogurt cover in half was just as important as standing up against the evil of rape or sex trafficking.
But I was, as you said frequently, just a simpleton. I realized that I needed to write down everything I needed to say to you beforehand. Understandably my daily calls to ask your permission (for a pen or razor for instance) became arduous work for you as I stumbled more and more. And as the conversations over the phone with you got shorter, the time standing in that phone booth trying to build up the courage to make the call grew longer, my hands sweaty from the fear of discovering what more I had done wrong.
What’s fascinating in hindsight is that the more you humiliated me, disrespected me, broke me down, the more I respected you, admired you, desired to emulate you. You were an incarnate example of a strong masculine priest who would teach us how to overcome all obstacles and achieve the impossible – mainly, to change the world.
So I didn’t question when you came outdoors to yell at me for putting my hands in my pockets when it was 0 degrees out, windy and you had kept us from wearing coats (did I even have one?).
And I didn’t question when you sent us out in the middle of the winter with only a polo shirt and no hat or gloves to do pushups in the snow. My throbbing and bleeding hands, I would later learn from a medical student, were each day experiencing the first stage of frostbite. And the cold showers you forced me to take after PE only reinforced it.
I began to dread the minutes leading up to PE, not just because running outside in the blustery winters of Connecticut were hell, but because my entire body had developed a rash from the ice water and would burn as I stepped into the showers.
When I began doubting
The seed of doubt in your methods was planted in my mind not for how you treated us but in how you treated our family members.
My brother, who I worshiped for risking his life in Iraq as a Marine, had just come home safely from his 1st of what would be 5 tours of duty in war zones. He had driven 17 hours and, arriving early in the morning, parked his car at the seminary and waited for us to wake up so he could see me. But I was on the last day of an 8-day retreat and you sent him away. I was crushed. What if he went back to war and never returned. What if that was the last time I would have seen him?
I do not remember anything from that day, except how long I had waited for him to return safely from Iraq and had been dreaming of the day I would be able to give him a welcome back home hug. But it would have to wait because you controlled even that.
Then there was when my family did finally come to visit me after two years of being away. It was the day of my religious profession (did I actually want to do it?). You made sure to speak with the families of the important brothers first, that was clear. But mine was not one.
We had only been reunited for 2 or 3 hours before I was told my family had to go: I was needed inside so their time with me was up. My sister was only 8 so she didn’t understand why after not seeing me or talking to me for 2 years, she had to go so soon. She was sobbing and my parents had to pry her tightly clenched fingers off of me and strap her into the family van. A part of me died that day.
I wish I had known back then that we would only meet as an entire family one more time before my father died a decade later. I might have told you to fuck off and go out to dinner anyway.
Time to stand up
Fr Julio, I can no longer stand silent to the damage you inflicted on me and many others through deliberate and prolonged spiritual, psychological and emotional abuse.
The effects of this abuse have been long lasting for me and others. For the next 11 years, your accusatory voice never left me. It was there standing behind me in the silence of my own room, ready to shout at me for crossing my feet or not folding my yogurt covers. My mind was like a broken track, constantly coming up with excuses for all of my actions, no matter how licit, should you happen to burst back into my life and begin yet another round of verbal abuse.
Those two short years that I had you as a superior marked the next 13 years of my life. Like the Dementors in Harry Potter who suck out the soul of their victims and leave the bodies to wander aimlessly, your work left me as a mere shell of a man years after I had left the seminary.
In the brilliant film Manchester by the Sea, the main character is a father who cannot forgive himself when his three kids are lost in a fire because he forgot to put the screen back in front of the fireplace.
When he and his wife run into each other years later, she asks him for forgiveness for all the terrible things she said to him and told him he cannot keep walking around like a corpse. But he tells her there is nothing there to bring back to life – he is already dead inside.
It is hard to explain what it feels like to have over a decade of anger, despair, emptiness, and complete self-hatred trapped inside and to feel like there is not a human soul to share it with who could understand any of it. When I watched the scene in Manchester by the Sea broke down sobbing uncontrollably.
Finally, I had a way of showing what it meant to feel dead inside. Returning to a world that could not possibly understand what I felt or why I felt it, this scene became my comfort.
It was the feeling that I would never escape, never find hope again, never find myself again that led me to almost committing suicide a few years later.
Someone understood me. I was no longer alone in this world.
There is always a reason for hope
Fr Julio, I do not write this to shame you, humiliate you or destroy your reputation. There was a time when despise and loathe were not adequate terms to describe how I felt about you.
But that was when I was still a victim.
I am no longer a victim, I am not powerless, I am not enslaved to the past.
I also don’t believe that all of your priesthood has been in vain, nor that everyone had the same experience with you as I did. For some reason, you chose me and a few others to especially “form”.
But the despair and hopelessness that I have experienced, the pain and agony that trailed me even after I left the seminary – they are much more universal amongst those who left the Legion.
The Legionaries of Christ say that they have learned their lessons from the scandals, made the necessary changes and moved on. They say that all the victims that remain left drenched in their own blood should pat them on the back and just get over it.
And yet, what is most concerning is that only one priest has publicly apologized.
Only. One. Priest.
No, the damage and destruction left behind is not the result of one priest, nor are you the only one who carries the blame.
It is a marvelous thing that in writing this as a way to bring attention to the work still to be done to bring about healing that I have become aware of times when I myself acted in a way that was harsh
Justice demands that I too recognize my sins and ask forgiveness where possible. To those whom I harmed, either due to my pride or lack of proper training, I ask forgiveness.
Please do not hesitate to reach out to me and share either publicly or privately – whichever way makes you most comfortable – so that I can do whatever I can to make amends and help you on your path to healing.
None of us are perfect – I certainly am not. But being a man means taking ownership of our mistakes. I have written this in the hopes that you do so so that your ministry can be marked by the good that you have done and not the bad.
My hope is that this letter may be one more step in helping the men whose lives have been destroyed in giving them a path to recovery. May they no longer have to wake up in the middle of the night screaming.
When I first entered the seminary I said I wanted to stand up for the weak, the poor, the enslaved: hell, I was going to end sex-trafficking. For the moment, this is my standing up.
Finally and most importantly, Fr Julio, I forgive you.
After publishing this article, Fr Julio reached out to me personally. We spoke on the phone for over an hour and I was both surprised and grateful that he had the courage to seek me out and ask for forgiveness.
I wanted to share this with those who will read my post because it is important that people who have been victimized know that there can be a positive outcome in the end. It did not undo the past, but I am grateful that he admitted the suffering he had caused and sought me out.
For those who have been sexually abused, I am not suggesting that having the abuser apologize would be enough to bring about justice; merely that my opening up and sharing led to greater healing for me. My hope would that you do not bury your pain and simply live with it, but rather seek healing over time.