VATICAN CITY (AP) - The Legion of Christ religious order, still reeling from 2009 revelations that its late founder was a pedophile who fathered three children, was hit Tuesday by another scandal after its most well-known priest admitted he had fathered a child several years ago.
The Rev. Thomas Williams, a moral theologian and prominent American author, lecturer and television personality, said in a statement he was "deeply sorry for this grave transgression" against his vows of celibacy. He said he would be taking a year off to reflect on what he had done and his commitment to the priesthood.
The revelation immediately raised questions about when Williams' superiors knew of the existence of the child, given that the birth occurred several years ago and that Williams, a former superior of the order's Rome headquarters, has never stopped speaking out on issues of moral conscience. A Legion spokesman said the order had decided not to disclose when it learned about his child.
Williams' admission was issued after the Associated Press last week presented the Legion with the allegation against Williams, which was lodged by a Spanish association of Legion victims. The association's accusations, sent to the Legion and Vatican several weeks ago, also named other Legion priests accused of sexually abusing minors.
Williams, who was not accused of abuse, said that "a number of years ago" he had a relationship with a woman and fathered her child. He didn't identify the mother and didn't say whether the relationship was over. He also did not identify the gender or say if he was helping to support the child.
The Legion has been beset by scandal following revelations that its late founder, the Rev. Marciel Maciel, fathered three children with two women and sexually abused his seminarians. Maciel died in 2008, and in 2009 the Legion admitted to his crimes. The Maciel scandal has been particularly sensational given that the Mexican-born priest was held up by Pope John Paul II as a model for the faithful, with his priests admired for their orthodoxy and ability to bring in money and attract new seminarians.
The facade, however, began to crumble in 1997 with revelations of his abuse, though it wasn't until 2006 that the Vatican sanctioned Maciel to a lifetime of prayer and penance for his crimes. Just last week, the Legion admitted that seven of its priests were under investigation by the Vatican for allegedly sexually abusing minors - suggesting the same culture of secrecy and silence that Maciel used to cover his crimes enabled other priests to abuse children.
Williams, the most prominent priest in the 800-strong order, spoke about Maciel's double life in a February 2009 interview with the Catholic ETWN program, saying the revelations were a "very, very hard blow to all of us."
Williams, the author of such books as 2008's "Knowing Right From Wrong: A Christian Guide to Conscience," was the superior of the Legion's general directorate in Rome in the late 1990s and early 2000s. More recently, he taught theology, promoted his books and lectured widely.
His personal website, which lists his numerous books, speaking engagements, articles and appearances as a CBS commentator, was taken down on Tuesday. Emails to Williams, who is said by friends to be suffering from cancer, have not been returned.
The Vatican in 2010 took over the Legion after conducting an investigation into the order and the double life of Maciel, who founded the order in 1941 in Mexico and oversaw its growth into a large and prominent congregation. It is now being run by a papal delegate, Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, who is spearheading a process of reform after the Vatican found serious problems with the cult-like group.
Genevieve Kineke, who runs a blog about the Legion aimed at helping those who leave, welcomed Williams' revelations but questioned who knew what and when given that the child is several years old and at least some in the Legion are believed to have known for years of Maciel's double life yet covered it up to avoid scandal.
"I'm gratified that this has become known, for it couldn't remain hidden without its own toxic effect," Kineke said in an e-mail. "With due respect for his privacy and that of his family, details about the timeline are still important - if only to ascertain if more corporate duplicity led to this point."
She noted Williams has been a vocal advocate for the Legion "evidently while harboring his own "double life.' Either his superiors knew this, and still allowed him to speak, or he abused his freedom knowingly and engaged in grave hypocrisy."
Legion spokesman Jim Fair said he didn't know when Williams' superiors learned about the existence of the child. "The decision was taken not to provide additional detail on this," Fair said in an email.
The accusation against Williams was first lodged by the Association for Help for Those Affected by the LC, a Spanish association for victims of the Legion. Member Patricio Cerda told the Associated Press the fact Williams only admitted to the accusation when the Legion was confronted by the AP shows the culture of cover up in the Legion remains.
"This shows that there is no real process of reform," but just a process to rewrite the Legion's constitutions, he said. He said the cases of abusive priests referred to the Vatican were known to Legion superiors more than five years ago, and a year ago to De Paolis. Most of the allegations concern alleged abuse from decades ago and some of the cases were well-known among Legion watchers.
"What is surprising is how long it took them to recognize the paternity of a child of one of their priests and how much they tried to protect those who abused children," he said.
In his statement, Williams said he and his superiors had decided he should to take a year off of active ministry to reflect on his commitments as a priest. "I am truly sorry to everyone who is hurt by this revelation and I ask for your prayers as I seek guidance on how to make up for my errors," he wrote.
In an email sent to all Legion priests that accompanied Williams' announcement, Fr. Luis Garza, who heads the Legion in the U.S., said he was relaying the news with great sadness given the Legion's recent turmoil.
"The last thing I would wish is to add a fresh wound when older wounds may not have healed fully," wrote Garza, who was long the Legion's No. 2 in Rome.