Pope Francis has granted an "indulgence" to a controversial religious congregation famous for its millionaire members and notorious for the sexual crimes committed by its founder. The decision has prompted experts to suggest the pontiff is coming under pressure from conservatives as he advances a reformist agenda that puts a priority on serving the poor and attracting lapsed Catholics back to the church, at the same time as he has promised to address sexual crimes involving priests.
Bernardo Barranco, an academic and columnist who writes often on the Mexican Catholic Church, told VICE News that the indulgence for the Legionaries of Christ was "contradictory" to the rest of the Pope's message.
"I think that this is a reformist Pope who wants to have a different kind of relationship with contemporary society, but there are ultraconservatives who are pressuring for him not to go in that direction," Barranco said. "To understand [the indulgence] I think we have to look at the tensions and power struggles within the Vatican."
The Pope granted the indulgence — a removal of punishment due for forgiven sins that is not technically a pardon — on October 28. Such decisions are commonly made in advance of important anniversaries, such as the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Legionaries of Christ in January. Pope Francis has also announced a jubilee year of mercy in 2016, which includes indulgences for Catholics carrying out "acts of mercy" and also permission for priests to absolve women confessing to having had abortions.
But the nod to the Legionaries also comes ahead of the Pope's much-anticipated visit to Mexico in February, during which he is widely expected to speak on uncomfortable issues such as violence, migration and corruption.
"It is very unfortunate that this decision comes on the eve of the Pope's visit to Mexico when the Legionaries have been identified by society as abusive of power and money and, above all, children," Barranco said.
Francis' predecessor Pope Benedict XVI avoided all controversies when he visited the country in 2012. This included pressure to meet with victims of Legionaries founder Father Marciel Maciel, though he had ordered that the Legionaries be re-founded with a new charter in 2010. This effectively expunged the legacy of Maciel who has been shown to have sexually abused seminarians and fathered several children, some of whom he also allegedly abused.
Officials from the order in the United States and Mexico did not respond to requests for interviews. A spokesman in Rome told Mexico's Televisa TV network the indulgence was not forgiveness but "grace given to the members of an institution, inviting them to practice their virtues, to be more apostle-like and live the gospel better," said spokesman Father Benjamin Clariond.
Father Hugo Valdemar, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico City insisted that the decision should be seen as a "religious matter" rather than the Pope cleaning the order's slate.
"This doesn't have to do with the crimes of Father Maciel," he said, though he did acknowledge that "It's difficult to deny the origins" of the Legionaries.
Father Maciel founded the order in the southern boroughs of Mexico City in 1941. Over the decades it grew to wield unusual influence, especially in the Vatican during the papacy of John Paul II. Maciel was eventually ordered to retire from his ministry and live a life of prayer and penance in 2006. He died two years later.
The news of Pope Francis' indulgence for the Legionaries comes shortly after a contentious church meeting on the family — known as a synod — in which conservative cardinals pushed back against proposals by the Pope and reform-minded Catholics to better welcome and include divorcees and members of the gay community.
Mexico City Cardinal Norberto Rivera was reportedly among 13 cardinals who penned a letter expressing their displeasure with the Pope's plans, though he later denied this. Rivera has staunchly supported the Legionaries of Christ – even as the allegations of sexual abuse against Maciel gathered force.
"Despite the exposés of the order's sordid affairs, it retains solid ecclesial support among fellow conservatives and retains impressive financial resources," said Andrew Chesnut, religious studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Instead of granting an indulgence, Pope Francis should have dissolved the order," he added.
The controversies surrounding the Legionaries also relate to its reputation for fostering close ties with Mexico's rich and powerful that were built up over decades.
"They promoted salvation to the rich," religious expert Barranco said. "It didn't matter if you were corrupt, exploiting others, doing business with the government, laundering money, what mattered is that you share money for good and positive projects through our organization."
The Legionaries became wealthy as well. Past donors include Mexican telecoms magnate Carlos Slim and the order's assets reportedly reach into the tens of billions of dollars.
The Legionaries point proudly to charitable programs providing quality educations for the poor. They also operate elite academies for the rich. The latter, critics contend, are designed to offer opportunities for the children of elites to network rather than educational excellence.
"They are education centers that administer, above all other things, relationship capital," academic and author Ricardo Rafael wrote of the Legionaries' schools in his book 'Mirreynato, the Other Inequality,' on the ostentatious offspring of the Mexican elite.
Students at the Instituto Cumbres, a Legionaries' secondary school, stoked outrage earlier this year, when they released a professionally produced video, featuring five males auditioning female models to accompany them to their graduation party.
The video, which shows the students sipping liquor, tending to a pet jaguar and feigning fatigue with so many females pursuing them, went viral – reinforcing perceptions of privilege, power and impunity enjoyed the Mexican elites, along with the kind of graduates emerging from Legionaries' academies. It also reinforced the idea that little had changed in the order, in spite of past scandals and Vatican scrutiny.
"You have to remove this idea that attending to the rich is something bad. … Someone in the church has to do it." Valdemar said. "The great majority of Legionaries priests are excellent persons, very good priests, well-trained and truly committed," he added. "The problem is the stain of the founder, which covers the entire congregation."
Mexican media — parts of which were closely linked with the Legionaries in the past and can still appear sympathetic to the order — portrayed the indulgence as an unequivocal pardon.
"It's an attempt to celebrate the founding of an institution, which at the local, international and Vatican level has been systematically causing headaches since its foundation," said José Barba, a professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico and victim of Maciel when he was a seminarian in the 1950s. Barba was one of the first to seek to draw attention to the crimes when he and a group of other now elderly former victims began to talk to journalists.
"The Legionaries of Christ essentially has not changed," Barba added.
Follow David Agren on Twitter: @el_reportero