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Priests of disgraced Legion face trial for obstruction claim

MILAN (AP) — The Vatican effort to reform the disgraced Legion of Christ religious order is coming under new scrutiny, with four Legion priests and a Legion lawyer due to stand trial on charges they tried to obstruct justice and extort the family of a sex abuse victim.

The preliminary hearing is scheduled for March 12 in Milan. The case is significant because it calls into question the effectiveness of the Vatican reform since the alleged crimes occurred at the end of the Holy See’s four-year effort to turn the Legion around.

In addition, evidence obtained during the investigation, including documents seized when police raided the Legion’s Rome headquarters in 2014, showed an elaborate cover-up that stretched from Milan to Mexico, the Vatican to Venezuela, prosecutors say.

The charges at the heart of the Milan trial center around a settlement proposal offered by the Legion to Yolanda Martinez on Oct. 18, 2013, to compensate for the sexual abuse her son suffered at the hands of a Legion priest at the order’s youth seminary in northern Italy.

According to the terms, Martinez’s family would receive 15,000 euros from the order. But in return, her son would have to recant the testimony he gave to prosecutors that the priest had repeatedly assaulted him in 2008, when he was 12. He would have to lie.

Lawyers for the five defendants declined to comment, citing the upcoming trial. The Legion has said they profess innocence. A Legion spokesman said that at the time, the Legion didn’t have in place the uniform child protection policies and guidelines that are now mandatory across the order.

Martinez’s son, now 24, had revealed his abuse to his psychologist in 2013, and then repeated his claim to Milan prosecutors after the psychologist reported the case. The complaint sparked a criminal investigation that resulted in the 2019 conviction of the priest, Vladimir Resendiz Gutierrez, 43, which was upheld on appeal last month. His lawyer, Natalia Curro, said an appeal to Italy's high court was being studied, and added that her client denied having abused Martinez's son, though he admitted to abusing another boy.

There is no evidence that the pope’s envoy running the Legion, the late Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, knew of or approved the settlement offer to Martinez before it was made. But he didn’t report Resendiz to police when he learned in 2011 that Resendiz had abused another child, and didn’t report the alleged obstruction attempt when he learned about it in 2013.

And when Martinez called the cardinal — one of the Vatican’s most respected church lawyers — to complain about the settlement proposal, he laughed it off and said this is how such things are done in Italy.

According to a wiretapped conversation on Jan. 7, 2014, De Paolis merely told Martinez not to sign the agreement and to negotiate a different deal, without lawyers: “Lawyers complicate things. Even Scripture says that among Christians we should find agreement.”

A few hours after the call, De Paolis opened the Legion’s 2014 assembly where he formally ended the mandate given to him by Pope Benedict XVI to reform and purify the religious order. The Legion had been “cured and cleaned,” he said.

Benedict had entrusted De Paolis to turn the Legion around in 2010, after revelations that its founder, the late Rev. Marcial Maciel, had molested his seminarians, fathered three children and built a cult-like order to hide his crimes.

Benedict gave De Paolis broad powers to rebuild the Legion from the ground up and said it must undergo a profound process of “purification” and “renewal.” But De Paolis refused from the start to remove any of Maciel’s old guard, who remain in power today. He refused to investigate the cover-up of Maciel’s crimes. He refused to reopen old allegations of abuse by other priests, even when serial rapists remained in the Legion’s ranks, unpunished.

He did authorize a canonical investigation into Resendiz in 2011 that resulted in him being defrocked in April 2013. But as a general rule, he didn’t come to grips with the order’s deep-seated culture of sexual abuse, cover-up and secrecy — and its long record of avoiding law enforcement and dismissing, discrediting and silencing victims.

As a result, even onetime Legion supporters now openly question his reform, which was dismissed previously as ineffective by the Legion’s longtime critics. Now, victims of these other Legion priests are coming forward in droves with stories of sexual, psychological and spiritual abuse, and how the Legion’s culture of secrecy and cover-up has remained intact.

“They say they’re close to the victims and help their families,” Martinez told The Associated Press at her Milan home. “My testimony is this didn’t happen.” While Milan prosecutors first heard about Resendiz’s pedophilia in 2013, his behavior and crimes were old news to both the Vatican and the Legion.

Personnel files seized in the police raid, for example, made clear Resendiz was known to the Legion as a risk even when he was a teenage seminarian in the 1990s. Yet he was ordained a priest anyway in 2006 and immediately sent to oversee young boys at the Gozzano youth seminary near Italy's border with Switzerland.

“He’s a boy with strong sexual impulses and low capacity to control them,” Resendiz’s novice director, the Rev. Antonio Leon Santacruz, wrote in an internal assessment on Jan. 9, 1994. The Legion says it has since overhauled its seminary training and applies more scrutiny before ordaining priests.

The Legion has admitted it received a first report of abuse by Resendiz on March 6, 2011, from another boy who had been a student at Gozzano. The Legion says that boy, an Austrian, had first told a Legion priest of Resendiz’s abuse. That priest recommended the victim report it to a church ombudsman’s office in Austria that receives abuse complaints, which he did.

But according to one email seized by Italian police — written March 16, 2011, or 10 days after the Austrian claim was received — a lawyer recommended to one of the Legion’s top behind-the-scenes bureaucrats, the Rev. Gabriel Sotres, that a Legion priest visit with the victim in Austria.

The aim of the visit, prosecutors wrote in summarizing the email exchanges, “was to speak to the (victim’s) older brother and convince him to not tell their parents and not go to police because this could cause serious problems not only for the Legion but also Father Vladimir, all the other priests involved and the victim and his family.”

A Legion spokesman, the Rev. Aaron Smith, didn’t deny the prosecutors’ account but said that “encouraging a child to keep something from their parents or guardians is contrary to our code of conduct.”

Later in 2011, the Legion got wind of another possible victim in Venezuela, where Resendiz had been moved in 2008 from Gozzano. According to the seized emails, the order arranged for Resendiz to be transferred to Colombia, and prepared a legal strategy to limit the possible damage if the Venezuelan case escalated.

The emails were sent to Sotres and other Legion superiors who remain in top positions today. In fact, in the Legion’s current leadership assembly underway in Rome to choose new superiors and priorities, at least 13 of the 89 participating priests or their substitutes were involved in some way in dealing with the Resendiz scandal, fallout and cover-up, including two priests who are defendants in the upcoming Milan trial.

Maria Verza contributed to this story from Mexico City.

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