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AP Exclusive: 8 victims seek damages from Legion of Christ

VATICAN CITY (AP) - Eight victims of the Catholic Church's most notorious pedophile are pressing the Legion of Christ religious order to compensate them for the sexual abuse they endured and the psychological harm they say resulted from the order's prolonged campaign to discredit them.

The men, some of whom are suffering financial and medical hardships as they age, sent a letter to the Legion's leadership seeking public recognition of their status as victims of the Rev. Marcial Maciel and the Mexico-based order, which was once one of the fastest-growing congregations in the church but suffered a credibility crisis over Maciel's crimes and cover-up.

The letter, obtained by The Associated Press, is the latest indication that clergy abuse victims are increasingly demanding recognition and apologies not just for their abuse, but for the retaliation often inflicted on them by church leaders after they reported allegations.

Just this week, Pope Francis acknowledged making "grave errors" in discrediting abuse victims in Chile, and begged their forgiveness.

There was no comment Thursday from the Legion.

The letter underscores the still-unfinished business surrounding the scandal over Maciel, despite the Legion's efforts to move on. The charismatic preacher was beloved by the Vatican but turned out to be a drug addict who sexually abused his seminarians, fathered three children and created a cult-like order to hide his double life. The Vatican knew of allegations against him since the 1950s, but only took action against him in 2006. He died in 2008.

In the letter, the victims asked that a compensation commission, which had been active during a Vatican-mandated period of reform after Maciel's crimes were exposed in 2009, be reopened to consider their cases. For a variety of reasons, the eight men never approached the original commission, and they lamented that the commission never contacted them.

The men, all Mexican citizens who lodged the original official church complaint against Maciel in 1998, called for the commission to develop a plan of action to "determine the harm inflicted on us and its indispensable reparation."

Jose Barba, who signed the letter on behalf of his fellow former seminarians, said he never approached the original compensation commission because he didn't trust it. He said he was participating in the new initiative because some victims are truly hurting financially and deserve reparation.

"We believe this is worthwhile, because we have suffered for a quarter-century many humiliations, many defamations nationally and internationally," Barba said in a telephone interview Thursday from his home in Mexico City.

After the men went public with their accusations in 1997, the Legion embarked on a yearslong campaign to discredit them. The order and its supporters accused victims of attacking the church and slandering a man held up as a living saint by his followers and praised by St. John Paul II and his cardinals.

As it turned out, the Vatican determined the victims were right. The Legion issued a lengthy apology in 2014.

"I am not interested in shaming anyone," Barba added. "I am interested in helping, as much as I can in the last days of my life, to improve the church to which my family - my grand-parents, my parents and my children - belong."

After the Vatican sentenced Maciel in 2006 to a lifetime of penance and prayer for his crimes, Pope Benedict XVI took over the Legion and imposed a yearslong period of renewal. That process included the creation of a compensation commission, which was active from 2011-2014 and compensated 12 people for an undisclosed sum.

In their March 26 letter, the eight men insisted the Legion recognize them as victims of both Maciel's abuse and the "moral, psychological and spiritual harm" inflicted on them "in a continued, consistent and prolonged way" by the Legion after they denounced his behavior.

They called for the Legion to recognize that their revelations were not a betrayal but rather a service to both the church and the Legion.

No mention was made of the letter in an April 8 press release by the Legion after a recent meeting of Legion leaders to whom it was addressed.

"My expectations are absolutely low," Barba said. "I know the Legionaires, and I know they don't care."


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