January 31, 2008 / 6:59 PM / 10 years ago

Mexican Catholic leader accused of sex abuse dies

<p>A 2004 file photo shows Pope John Paul II blessing Father Marcial Maciel during a special audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican.Tony Gentile</p>

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The Mexican founder of an ultra-conservative Catholic movement who was accused of child abuse and punished by the Vatican has died aged 87, his Legionaries of Christ group said on Thursday.

Marcial Maciel died of natural causes in the United States on Wednesday, the Legionaries said on their Web site. Maciel founded the group in 1941 and it now operates in 40 countries.

Pope Benedict ordered Maciel to retire to a life of "prayer and penitence" in 2006 after years of allegations that he had sexually abused boys and young men.

Nine men have in recent years accused Maciel of molesting them while they were in a seminary from the 1940s to the 1960s.

Maciel repeatedly denied the charges, and the claims decades later came too late for authorities to pursue a criminal case.

"I never engaged in the sort of repulsive behavior these men accuse me of," Maciel said in 2002.

The Legionaries of Christ group was for long valued by the Vatican as a zealous army of God that still draws in new recruits when other orders are flagging.

The abuse case was controversial within the Vatican because former Pope John Paul II was a longtime supporter of Maciel and praised him as "an efficacious guide to youth."

Some young victims said Maciel told them he had permission from the Pope to abuse them in order to gain relief for stomach problems, according to early U.S. media reports.

Benedict dismissed the case against Maciel in 1999 when he was head of the church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees the Catholic Doctrine. But in a turnaround he reopened the case and years later, as Pope, he punished Maciel.

Maciel, born in a small town in the central Mexican state of Michoacan, came from a distinguished Catholic family with two great-uncles who were Mexican Bishops.

He founded the conservative Catholic order as an underground movement at a time when the Catholic Church was being persecuted in Mexico by an anti-clerical government.

The group has about 600 priests and 2,500 seminarians worldwide. Pupils take chastity, poverty and obedience vows and must pledge not to criticize their superiors and to inform on any dissent within the order.

Maciel's accusers have described their seminary life as a brainwashing experience with Maciel portrayed as a saint.

Reporting by Tomas Sarmiento; writing by Mica Rosenberg; editing by Mohammad Zargham

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