Vatican 'probes Legion of Christ priests over child abuse'

Pope John Paul II blesses Legion of Christ founder Marcial Maciel in 2004 The order's founder, Marcial Maciel (L), was for a long time admired by Pope John Paul II (R)

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The Vatican is reported to be investigating seven priests of the Legion of Christ order in connection with allegations of child abuse.

In a statement to the AP news agency, the Mexican order said seven cases had been referred to the Vatican's department that deals with sex crimes.

The Legion of Christ's founder, Marcial Maciel, sexually abused many boys and young men over a period of 30 years.

He was disciplined by the Vatican in 2006 over the abuse.

One of the cases being investigated in relation to the seven priests is recent, while others date back several decades, the order said in the statement given to AP.

The investigation will be handled by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that investigates allegations of sexual abuse.

While it is under way, the suspects will be kept away from children.

'Immoral acts'

"Over the past few years, in several countries, the major superiors of the Legion of Christ have received some allegations of gravely immoral acts and more serious offences... committed by some legionaries," AP quoted the statement as saying.

The order has previously insisted that Fr Maciel was an isolated case.

The BBC's Alan Johnston in Rome says that if these new allegations are proven it will show that the rot in the order had spread beyond its disgraced leader.

In 2009, the Church launched an investigation into the order after Fr Maciel, who died in 2008, was also revealed to have fathered a daughter by a mistress.

A year later, Pope Benedict XVI appointed an envoy to implement a complete overhaul of the Legion of Christ, saying it had to be "purified".

The previous pope, John Paul II, long held up Fr Maciel as a model to the faithful, despite persistent allegations of sexual abuse, which were later proven.

In recent years, the Church has been rocked by cases of paedophilia by priests, and accusations that it did not do enough to investigate the allegations.

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