NEW YORK - Pope Benedict XVI has taken the extraordinary step of ordering a Vatican investigation of the Legionaries of Christ, the influential, conservative religious order that has acknowledged that its founder fathered a child and molested seminarians.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the No. 2 man in the Vatican, said church leaders will visit and evaluate all seminaries, schools and other institutions run by the Legion worldwide.
Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, said in a statement made public Tuesday that the Vatican was stepping in "so that with truth and transparency, in a climate of fraternal and constructive dialogue, you will overcome the present difficulties."
The Legion revealed in February that its founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel of Mexico, had fathered a daughter who is now in her 20s and lives in Spain. Maciel died in 2008 at age 87.
The disclosure caused turmoil inside the religious order and its lay affiliate, Regnum Christi. The groups teach that Maciel was a hero whose life should be studied and emulated.
The news also raised many questions - from the order's critics and defenders alike - that the Legion still hasn't publicly answered, about whether any current leaders covered up Maciel's misdeeds and whether any donations were used to facilitate the misconduct or pay victims.
There is no way to predict the outcome of the evaluation. Germain Grisez, a prominent moral theologian at Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland, has said the Legion should be shut down.
In a statement Tuesday, the director of the religious order, the Rev. Alvaro Corcuera, expressed his "deep gratitude" for the review, called an Apostolic Visitation.
Yet, the Holy See undertakes these extraordinary investigations when it considers a group unable to correct a major problem on its own. In 2002, at the height of the clergy sex abuse scandal, the Vatican ordered an evaluation of all U.S. seminaries.
"The Vatican is - in an exquisitely cautious way - trying to decide whether to keep the Mexicans who are running the order and to determine whether the Legion is a kind of cult," said Jason Berry, a New Orleans journalist who has written about the Legion for years and produced the film "Vows of Silence," about the Holy See's review of abuse claims against Maciel.
The Legion was formed in 1941 and became one of the most influential and fastest-growing orders in the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II championed the group, which became known for its orthodox theology, military-style discipline, fund-raising prowess and success recruiting priests at a time when seminary enrollment was generally dismal.
The group says it now has more than 800 priests and 2,500 seminarians worldwide, along with 50,000 Regnum Christi members. In the U.S. alone, the Legion has two dozen or so prep schools, along with a few seminaries for teenage boys, and it has been building a college - the University of Sacramento - in California.
Yet, the order and its lay affiliate, Regnum Christi, had detractors throughout its rise. Critics condemned the group's secrecy vows that barred public criticism of a superior, and its practice of limiting contact between seminarians or Regnum Christi members and their families.
Former members eventually formed support groups, such as the ReGain Network, to warn others against joining, and, in some cases, to help families get their relatives out. In 2007, the Legion sued ReGain to stop them from publicizing internal documents from the order.
The Legion was partly insulated from criticism by prominent supporters of its work, including George Weigel, the American biographer of John Paul; former U.S. drug czar William Bennett; and Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard University law professor who was a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican under President George W. Bush. Legion leaders often vilified the order's critics as liberals who wanted to attack John Paul and the church.
But the group's reputation began unraveling in 2006, a year into Benedict's pontificate, when the Vatican instructed Maciel to lead a "reserved life of prayer and penance" in response to the abuse allegations. Nine men had told the Vatican that Maciel had molested them decades before when they were young adults studying for the priesthood.
Around the same time, several U.S. dioceses - including those in Atlanta, St. Paul and Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge, La. - set strong limits on the Legion's work. Last year, Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O'Brien restricted the Legion's local recruitment for the priesthood.
However, it was only after the disclosure this year about Maciel's daughter that leaders acknowledged publicly that the priest also molested seminarians.
"He (Maciel) was asked to do penance in 2006 and still they were holding him up as their hero, their icon," O'Brien said in an interview, after warning local parishioners last month they should not join the group. "That shows how insensitive they were and I think, right now, unaware of the damage that's being done not coming out and saying things."
Jay Dunlap, a former national spokesman for the Legion who now teaches in its schools, wrote an apology on his personal blog for defending Maciel.
"It is now clear that Father Maciel did, in fact, abuse his power and abuse young people in his charge," Dunlap wrote.
Weigel and other supporters of the religious order have been pressing leaders for a full disclosure of Maciel's wrongdoing so the Legion can move forward.
The end result of the global investigation depends largely on the Vatican's instruction to the bishops who are appointed to lead the review, and whether the prelates are able to pierce what Weigel has called the Legion's "institutionalized culture of defensiveness."
The team of investigators will be named by the Vatican and begin work within the next several months.