Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Vows of Silence: The Cult Within

Marci A. Hamilton

Highly regarded author Jason Berry has produced a remarkable documentary based on the book, Vows of Silence, which he co-authored with Gerard Renner. This one-hour film tells the story of the Vatican’s treatment of Marcial Maciel, who recently passed away, and his orders, Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi.

A Review by Marci Hamilton

At base, though, the subtext of the story is the history of the Vatican’s ineffectual handling of the sexual abuse of children by clergy within the Roman Catholic Church. It is likely to leave the viewer genuinely troubled and even frustrated.

Without giving too much away, this is the story of a charismatic leader, Maciel, who the Church originally refused to ordain. He was kicked out of two seminaries, with no public explanation, before his uncle finally ordained him. He turned out to be a remarkable fundraiser, accruing hundreds of millions of dollars, and a shrewd recruiter of young talent. His family was also well-connected, all of which made him attractive to the hierarchy in Rome.

At the same time, he sexually abused many, many of his seminarians, who are required to take an oath of silence when they join the organization. And a years-long investigation under canon law yielded no justice for the victims; the only result of numerous victims telling their excruciating stories was denial of ministerial duties and a well-cushioned retirement. Sadly, none of the victims documented made it to the secular authorities, so no justice was done whatsoever.

In this era, what is most striking about the film is the resonance of Maciel’s character with that of the other cult leaders so prominent in the news right now. Warren Jeffs, the prophet of the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), who is now imprisoned, convicted of furthering the rape of a 14-year-old, and facing at least two other trials on similar charges, has ruled the FLDS from the top, has accumulated remarkable wealth, and allegedly has sexually abused children as he has allegedly committed numerous Mann Act violations transporting underage girls to be spiritually “married” to much older men in polygamous unions that treat the girls as baby-making machines.. His niece claims he started fondling her at a very young age and his nephew filed a lawsuit alleging that Jeffs and other men within the FLDS regularly sexually abused him.

National Geographic also recently released a story about a cult leader in New Mexico who is the head of the Lord Our Righteousness Church. He claims to be God, that there is a near end time, and that acquiesces in his demand that he must have sex with seven virgins. Those who have escaped say that he insisted on lying naked with teenage girls, though there is no claim just yet that he engaged in intercourse.

What happens when such men lead religious organizations? They use their religious perch as a stepping off point for misusing and abusing those who are less powerful within the organization. They demand hierarchical obedience from their members who live within an insular community and fervently reject the outside world’s values (givng members no alternative to their spiritual imprisonment), as they use their sheep for their own ends.

Of the three situations, the Maciel story is most chilling from one perspective. The FLDS and the New Mexico cult are splinter groups that have chosen quite consciously to exit the mainstream. They live on compounds intentionally removed from society, and they operate under a religious horizon that blots out the larger culture. The FLDS in particular has no respect for legal rules outside the organization and has no parent church to bring it to account.

Maciel, though, is housed in the oldest Christian organization in history, which is also the largest denomination of Christians in the world. He is situated in a church whose home is a sovereign recognized around the world as such. The Holy See is part of the larger world legal structure and has signed the UN Charter for the Rights of the Child, among other treaties. Moreover, the Church has a rich and highly reticulated canon law that has explicitly addressed child abuse by clergy for hundreds of years and that has a judicial system replete with elements of due process including legal representation for both sides. Yet, he has been able to grow a cult from within.

This is the theme in Vows of Silence that reverberates most powerfully: The utter inadequacy of religious entities to corral or halt criminal behavior within their organization. When the focus of the organization is God, or heaven, or the rapture, criminal behavior somehow becomes tolerable. Or, to put it another way, religious organizations somehow lack the critical capacity to establish justice. When they do not adequately respect secular law and when they look only inward, they perpetuate a cycle of abuse that is breathtaking. That is why a cult like the Legionaries of Christ can fester within the Roman Catholic Church.

For law enforcement, Vows of Silence has one mandate: take off the rose-colored glasses when it comes to religious organizations, and do your public duty to enforce the law against lawbreakers, regardless of their personal religious beliefs.

About The Author

Marci A. Hamilton

Marci A. Hamilton is author of God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty (2007) and Justice Denied: What America Must Do To Protect Its Children (2008). She is one...

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