For every one that doth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, that his works may not be reproved. But he that doth truth, cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest, because they are done in God. (John 3:20-21)
In yesterday’s post on Michael Voris, a commenter caught a sentence I inadvertently left in from an earlier draft. In it, I compared the way Voris handled an anticipated public attack with the way the Legionaries of Christ handled word of a coming story about their founder that would eventually lead to the discovery of his many crimes. This theme made sense to me as I began writing, but I didn’t want the comparison to be misunderstood, so I ultimately decided to leave out.
But since it came up, let me explain.
In 1996, I had a front-row seat to the unfolding scandal that would, over the course of several years, reveal Fr. Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries, as a horrifying sexual predator, embezzler of funds, master of deceit, and serial adulterer.
I had just graduated from a high school run by the Legionaries, and spent the summer alternating between my construction job and doing missionary work with the order’s Youth for the Third Millenium organization. Following this, I had signed up for what the Legionaries called the “co-worker program” — full time volunteering for a year, sometimes two, in one of their houses of apostolate. I was sent to Atlanta, where I taught a daily 7th & 8th grade religion class at one of their schools and served as a leader for the ECYD — the Regnum Christi version of a youth group. During that time, I lived in community with another “co-worker”, one priest, and one seminarian.
We had just come back from our Thanksgiving retreat at the Legionary seminary in Cheshire, Connecticut, when Father (the house superior) got an ominous phone call. We were told to pack our things for an unscheduled trip. In 48 hours, we were on a plane back to Connecticut. We weren’t told why. It was all very mysterious and strange.
When we arrived, we realized that everyone was there. Every priest, every brother, every layman working in the apostolate. They had all been flown back on short notice, at an expense I couldn’t even begin to calculate. The superiors were tight-lipped about what was going on, but there was an unmistakably somber tone to the whole affair. We were divided up into levels of need-to-know so that things could be explained. The priests were given a private conference. The seminarians another. Our ragged band of less than a dozen “co-workers” sat together in a classroom, trying to figure out just what the heck was going on, and, as usual, cracking jokes to break the tension. Finally it was our turn. What we were told could barely have filled a thimble. I don’t remember the exact wording, but it was something like this:
We’ve gotten word that some allegations are going to be coming out in the press about Fr. Maciel. They’ve tried this before, and they’re trying again. It’s all false. Do not read these allegations. Do not pay them any attention. If anyone asks you about them, categorically deny it. Tell them it isn’t true. If they have more questions, refer them to your superior.
And that was it. That was what they had flown us out to tell us. The briefing took maybe five or ten minutes. I remember thinking, “They couldn’t have said this over the phone?” I also remember thinking, “What the heck kind of allegations are these going to be, and how can I deny them when I don’t even know what they say?” The sex abuse crisis hadn’t hit yet, so that didn’t even occur to me, and I’d never had any experiences to warrant such suspicions. When the story came out the following February, I had already left my work with the Legionaries for other reasons, but their denials continued. For years. Long after there was any credible doubt.
As I got some distance from the organization, I took time to reflect on my experiences. In doing so, I detected something deeply wrong with their conduct in every place I had encountered it, and I ended up spending the next few years of my life (while enrolled at a Catholic university where they had a strong presence) passionately working against their methodology of deceit and utilitarianism, trying to convince my friends to get out, and making my best effort to thwart their aggressive program of recruitment. Still, it would be years before the full extent of Maciel’s evil would be revealed. I would later come to realize that the things I recognized as problematic had a deeper cause; what I was fighting was not just institutional corruption, but intentional structures and processes created to feed and protect a cult of personality built around an extreme sexual predator.
Watching Michael Voris tackle anticipated allegations about his own life reminded me of this 20-year-old episode, but with a significant twist: whereas the Legionaries tried to cover up what Maciel had done, Voris opted for a full disclosure of his past. As I said yesterday, this was the right thing to do. And let’s be honest – men who are still guilty of wrongdoing usually run from the light. They very rarely embrace it. For Voris to tackle this head on only adds to his credibility.
But at the risk of overextending the analogy, I think there are other lessons to be learned from the Legionaries — lessons applicable here.
You see, the Legionaries had a secret vow: an oath of “charity” to never criticize superiors or their decisions. In retrospect, we can see that this existed to protect the malfeasance of Maciel and those closest to him; but it also suppressed the accountability of superiors throughout the organization, which made abuses (like being lied to in spiritual direction, as I was) harder to deal with.
As comments continue to come in on yesterday’s post from people who are unable to show their support for Voris on his own website because they’ve been banned for asking the wrong questions there, I can’t help but wonder: is the Orwellian comment moderation at Church Militant (or the similar ostracization of those who would be friends and allies of the apostolate but simply disagree on certain points) all that different, in practical effect, from the Legionaries’ secret vow? Who is being helped by allowing only a narrow, supportive viewpoint to be expressed there. What if certain assumptions need to be challenged in service of Christ’s truth?
Frankly, I don’t know if Maciel was ever a good man; he may have been perverse before he was ever ordained a priest, or, it may have come later. But all of us, if we are surrounded by flatterers and protected from challenges that cause us to ask soul-searching questions that prompt authentic growth, run the risk of being in some way corrupted by our own pride. Similarly, it’s dangerous to assume that theological orthodoxy equates to trustworthiness, or a guarantee against falling into error. I learned this the hard way with the Legion, which at first attracted me through its reverent liturgies, adoration and benediction, frequent use of Gregorian chant, and so on. By all appearances, the Legion was a fantastic order, and deserved to be growing faster than any other in the Church. In reality, it was a deeply corrupt organization, rotten to the core, that used these manifestations of Catholicity to lure unsuspecting young men and women into its trap — young men and women who, in their sincere desire to love and serve God, added to the outward appeal of the group as a whole.
Examples of sexual impropriety (like that perpetrated by Maciel) are shocking, but they’re not the only sort of problem a carefully-cultivated echo chamber can create. I never ran into even a hint of sexual misconduct in my years working with the Legion. I did see a lot of people lied to, mistreated, used, and spiritually abused. Many were left ruined by their experiences. I was very nearly one of them, and I came close to losing my faith.
I am aware of similar examples in other apostolates. I won’t belabor the point here. Suffice to say, after seeing these things again and again, I have reached the inescapable conclusion that an environment of honest, open questioning is the only safeguard against wolves in sheep’s clothing — who tend to seek out places where they are safe from scrutiny, and consequently thrive there. This is particularly important as an organization dedicated to some truly important apostolate grows in size and influence, making it a target — as Voris himself noted — of countless diabolical attacks.
Satan knows how to exploit our weaknesses. He knows how to turn good men evil — oftentimes warping their pursuit of otherwise virtuous, Godly goals.
I am not accusing Church Militant of any impropriety, which I want to make entirely clear. But my experiences cause me to reflect on what I see, and that is a danger in their current trajectory. Any organization that quashes respectful disagreement or engages willfully in an “us vs. them” mentality with anyone not perfectly aligned with their vision opens the door to undesirable influences and results. Fr. Nicholson’s sudden and vitriolic departure seems to provide evidence that this was, to some extent, already happening.
This type of attitude also isolates us from those who would be our friends, and we all need friends. Especially the kind who tell us when we’re wrong.
Michael Voris wielded transparency like a weapon this week, exposing his own sinful past so that it could not be used against him or the organization he leads. It was, I believe, the right thing to do, and despite the discomfort it brings, it will no doubt prove potent in fending off future attacks. With nothing to hide, digging up dirt becomes an exercise in futility. There is a freedom in putting all of one’s cards on the table.
It is my hope that this commitment to openness won’t end there. What if Voris and the staff at Church Militant decided to also extend this transparency to their larger organization, and to the Church as a whole? What if they invited (rather than aggressively combating) civil and reasoned disagreement in their comment boxes, or from other Catholic outlets? Imagine if they abandoned the policies that prohibit them from addressing the most significant component of the very crisis they otherwise seek to confront. Asking the hard questions — about ourselves, the work we do, or the institutions we belong to — helps us to be assured that our feet are on the right path.
Ephesians, chapter 5, echoes the words of John’s Gospel, and it is a theme that is applicable now more than ever:
Let no man deceive you with vain words. For because of these things cometh the anger of God upon the children of unbelief. Be ye not therefore partakers with them. For you were heretofore darkness, but now light in the Lord. Walk then as children of the light. For the fruit of the light is in all goodness, and justice, and truth; Proving what is well pleasing to God: And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. For the things that are done by them in secret, it is a shame even to speak of. But all things that are reproved, are made manifest by the light; for all that is made manifest is light. (Ephesians 5:6-13)
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.