When Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, an ultraconservative Roman Catholic movement, effectively resigned in January 2005 amid accusations of sexual abuse and misappropriation of funds, he spent the first leg of his exile in his home town of Cotija de la Paz, in the Mexican state of Michoacán. This was the place where, long ago, he had founded the Centro Cultural Interamericano in a beautiful retreat home overlooking the town. It was the last time in his life that Maciel, then 84, enjoyed the tranquil beauty of his town, with its grazing sheep and its reputation for making somewhat spicy cheeses.
There was nothing odd about Maciel's decision to return to Cotija to lick his wounds when Rome forced him to leave the public ministry and lead "a reserved life of penitence and prayer," after having enjoyed the Vatican's favor for decades under Pope John Paul II. What was curious, however, was the fact that Maciel was no longer traveling alone, as he had done for decades (contravening his own rules about Legionaries having to travel in twos to avoid temptation, and whose itinerary, budget and accommodation had to be previously approved by their superiors).
On this last journey, Maciel was in the company of a Mexican woman in her forties, Norma Baños, who increasingly made all the decisions regarding the founder's schedule. With them was Norma's daughter, Normita Rivas Baños (who carried the surname of one of the aliases used by Maciel in his lifetime, José Rivas). In a last display of "Macelian" impunity, this young woman studied communication at the Legion's universities in Mexico City (Anáhuac del Norte) and Madrid (Francisco de Vitoria), where a few people knew who she really was.
One Legion priest who was a witness to the events of 2005, had this to say: "In late October 2005, Ms Norma established a regular residence in Cotija, in the Legion's cultural center, where she occupied the room next to Maciel's. Their relationship was one of complete familiarity; each one walked into the other's room, just like a couple would."
That situation began to create considerable unrest among the Legionaries and workers living there, although this pious group of people chose to see it as an act of goodness by the founder.
"We all thought she was a rich benefactress who was giving money to the congregation and who had earned the trust of Father Maciel, just like previous benefactresses such as Talita Retes, Pepita Gandarillas, Pachita Pérez, Edmé de Galas, Dolores Barroso, Guillermina Dikins, Josefita Pérez, Consuelo Fernández, widow of Zertuche, Flora Barragán...," a witness recalls. "This woman, who was younger than her predecessors, stayed at Legion homes and was well loved by the consecrated women working in Maciel's service. We didn't consider any other options. Other people thought the opposite: that she was a member of our [lay] movement, Regnum Christi, as was her daughter, and that both women were in dire economic straits and Maciel was protecting them. Nobody went any further than that. Nobody connected the dots. How could we question our Father's conduct, and even worse, suspect that they were his lover and daughter?"
This daughter of Maciel had been born 20 years earlier in Mexico, at the same time that the Legion founder underwent surgery for a brain hemorrhage in a medical center in Houston, Texas. This surgery was followed by a discreet six-month convalescence in Mexico. According to a former Legionary, "after that surgery [Maciel] was no longer so good at concealing his comings and goings. He was not the same man."
Amazingly, in 2005 not one single Legionary suspected a thing in Cotija de la Paz, or else none had the courage to express personal doubts to a colleague. The Legion's private vow of silence and loyalty to the founder had not yet been repealed. As Legionaries, it was their duty not to criticize their leader's activities. They had been educated in this culture of secrecy since childhood, and no matter what they saw or heard, none of them thought they had the authority to criticize Maciel's activities outside the hierarchical complaint circuits. According to Maciel's norms, a Legionary with a complaint had to go to the director general or territorial director or to his own superior. That is to say, if any Legionary reported any odd conduct to his superior, the complaint did not go any further than that. If anyone knew anything about Maciel's private life, it had to be the 20 individuals who ran - and continue to run - the Legion, but they did nothing about it.
"Father Maciel was a very reserved man," "he was constantly traveling," "he slept in hotels" and "he did not answer to anybody" are the most commonly repeated arguments among Legion leaders to deflect the blame. Maciel was impenetrable. His successor, Álvaro Corcuera, insisted that he never suspected a thing. "I understand how people may be suspicious, but I can guarantee that we had no idea. Perhaps we should have investigated more, but Maciel was very reserved and nobody asked what he spent the money on. The founder is a major figure within any congregation. They all have a saint as a founder and nobody asks any questions. Maciel was a very particular kind of person. It was impossible to become a part of his life. He was very reserved in his trips and his business. Only the people who helped him were allowed into his room. He never used his office. Meetings were held in the General Direction rooms or while we were out for a stroll. We knew nothing of his tastes and hobbies. He made all the decisions. And he always seemed faultless to me, in clear contrast with everything I was to find out later and which would cause me so much suffering," said Corcuera.
So nobody knew a thing? That is difficult to believe. Maciel had thousands of followers all over the world. He was a regular presence in the Curia, and had direct access to the pope and other powerful men, from Mexican presidents to former Polish leader Lech Walesa and the family of ex-Spanish premier José María Aznar. He was furiously anti-Communist. He always traveled in first class, paid for everything in cash and stayed at the best hotels. (The New York Times reported that a former chief financial officer for the Legion had to give Maciel $10,000 in cash every time he left Rome). Somebody had to see him somewhere, at some point. And somebody no doubt did. It's another story whether anybody decided to step forward with the information.
A few photographs taken on May 3, 2005 (less than three years before his death) show Maciel in civilian clothes, a look he adopted late in life. The blue pants, short-sleeved shirt and round belly made him look like a pensioner in his eighties. Next to him, the photograph shows a black-haired Norma Baños in a showy turquoise dress and Normita, their daughter, wearing a white ensemble with a low-cut top. Standing next to them are three trustworthy congregation members: Teresa Vaca, Griselda Suárez and María Laura Moreno, smiling complacently with their hands on their laps, looking like nuns without their habits. In another picture taken around the same time, the group is joined by two Legion heavyweights from Spain: Jesús Quirce Andrés, a doctor and rector of Mexico's Anáhuac University, and Maciel's secretary, the very pious (judging by his writings) Marcelino Nino de Andrés, brother of José Ramón de Andrés, rector of the Salamanca seminary.
What were those two unaffiliated women doing in that Legion house, otherwise an impenetrable fort to anyone not belonging to the movement? What was their official status considering that the Legion was at the time off limits to even the close relatives of the Legionaries themselves? Let us imagine the scene: it is the fall of 2005 in a bucolic, isolated corner of the Mexican heartland; the founder is enjoying the spiritual peace of a comfortable retreat and an atmosphere of peace and prayer; there are priests and single women who have made vows of poverty, obedience and chastity and who are not even allowed to sit at the same table as the others. The founder of an ultraconservative order that used to be pampered by Pope John Paul II and has since fallen from grace, is living here with his lover and their secret daughter. The situation was bound to blow up sooner or later.
"Father Marcelino, secretary to Father Maciel, was intrigued by the exceptionally warm welcome that Norma and Normita enjoyed from the founder, and by their remarkable intimacy, and one day he took the girl aside and asked her point blank who she was and what her ties to Maciel were. And she suddenly says she's his daughter. Just like that. She had never said it before, and never said it again," says a witness, who blushes at the mere thought. "Poor Father Marcelino was taken aback and got in touch with Father Álvaro, the director general, to convey this up-to-now unknown piece of information. Father Álvaro said he would investigate, but I don't know if he did. I suppose the news did not spread among Legion members, because it had to be checked first. The girl's statements were the only lead, and it had to be established whether it was some kind of trick on her part to pave the way for future economic demands when Father Maciel died - or whether, on the contrary, she was telling the truth."
It was 2005, the year that John Paul II died; the year that Maciel was forced to step down from the order he had founded in 1941 and taken to 22 countries; the year that the mask finally slipped. Maciel had fooled everybody. The oddest thing is that Norma Baños, the girl's mother, later stated that for many years she herself was unaware of Maciel's real identity. In 2010, she said that she became pregnant while still underage, and did not know that the father of the child was in fact a priest. "I would never have chosen this path for my life... When I met this man, I was underage... Neither my daughter nor myself knew who he really was until the end."
The small circle of Legionaries who learned about the existence of Maciel's lover and daughter kept quiet about it. Father Corcuera, who sat before me in his Rome office with a gesture of affliction bordering on tears, in fact knew by the fall of 2005 that Maciel had a daughter. Some Legionaries figure the discovery even goes back to July. In any case, in 2005 Corcuera already knew, and it stands to reason that he must have informed his first deputy, Luis Garza, his second deputy Evaristo Sada, his four advisers and the principal superiors of the congregation. The current secretary general of the Legion, the sly Evaristo Sada, attempted to throw this reporter off the scent by placing the date of the discovery a year late. When I warned him that he was lying, he offered an excuse in best Legionary style: "You know I'm really bad with dates; I think it was in late 2006." He was lying. The Legion's upper echelons knew by late 2005 that Maciel had a daughter whom he kept and a woman with whom he lived.
Most of the congregation's 3,000 clergymen, 900 consecrated women and 70,000 members of its lay branch, Regnum Christi, were left alone in their unconditional defense of the founder, who was then facing the Vatican's ire over allegations that he sexually abused young male students at the seminary. Secrecy is the defining trait of the Legion of Christ, and it was all the more so in 2005, when the congregation's very foundations were being shaken and its leader's morals questioned. Most Legionaries would not be aware of the facts until 2009, when The New York Times ran a story about Maciel's "double life." But by then, Álvaro Corcuera and his immediate circle had known for three years already about Maciel's fatherhood, after ordering a consecrated woman to steal a hair from Normita's comb and getting a US clinic to run a DNA test on it. That analysis was carried out in 2006 and the results were positive: this was Maciel's daughter. According to some sources, Legion leaders even hired private investigators to track the money spent by the founder, who always paid for everything in cash.
"At that moment, with the DNA test in our hands, we began to realize that Maciel had fooled us all along," explains a Legionary who works in the Directorate General. "Our trust began to crack. If Father Maciel was able to fool everyone for 20 years with regard to his daughter, then those sexual abuse accusations brought against him since the 1940s might be true as well. The daughter issue pulled the blindfold from our eyes. The Vatican's May 2006 sanction began to seem more reasonable to us. There were identical patterns in isolated events. And everything started to seem possible, even if we had trouble believing it."