VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI's ability to reform the troubled Legion of Christ has again been thrown into doubt following revelations that a half-dozen priests are under Vatican investigation for allegedly molesting children and that the order's leadership knew its most prominent priest had fathered a child yet did nothing to prevent him from teaching and preaching about morality.
The Vatican on Thursday expressed confidence in Benedict's delegate running the congregation but acknowledged that the process of reform is "certainly long and complex precisely because it aims to be profound."
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi rejected suggestions that the revelations proved that the reform process wasn't working or that the Legion was too flawed to be saved.
On the contrary, he told The Associated Press, the revelations showed that the Legion under papal delegate Cardinal Velasio De Paolis was doing the right thing by taking action once the revelations became known.
"Even the recent public communications about the Legion seem to be new and a positive sign of transparency," he said. "There is no reason then not to have confidence in the way Cardinal De Paolis is guiding this complex path of renewal."
The Rev. Thomas Williams, an American moral theologian who was the public face of the Legion for years, admitted Tuesday he had had a relationship with a woman and had fathered a child "a number of years ago." He didn't identify the woman. The Legion said the child is being cared for.
The Legion subsequently admitted that Williams' superiors knew about the child but didn't remove him immediately from his prominent role as a professor of moral theology at the Legion's university in Rome and a popular television commentator, author and spokesman. The order has refused to say precisely when Williams' superiors knew, but former Legion priests say they suspect at least some in the leadership knew years ago.
Williams was only removed from his teaching position in February after a Spanish victims' group confronted the Legion with a letter outlining the allegations against Williams and other Legion priests accused of abusing children. The matter became public after the AP obtained a copy of the letter and last week requested comment from the Legion.
The revelations and apparent cover-up of the initial knowledge of Williams' child have raised questions about whether it's really possible to rehabilitate the Legion, which has been in disarray since admitting in 2009 that its founder had raped and molested seminarians and fathered three children with two women. The order, founded in 1941, became one of the fastest growing and most influential religious congregations because of its ability to attract money and seminarians to the priesthood.
Pope John Paul II held its leader, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, up as a model for the faithful despite allegations known to the Vatican dating back to the 1950s that Maciel was a drug addict and pedophile.
The facade, however, began to crumble in 1997, with public revelations of Maciel's abuse. It wasn't until 2006 that the Vatican sanctioned him to a lifetime of prayer and penance for his crimes. He died in 2008.