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Pope orders probe of scandal-plagued religious order

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict has ordered an investigation of an influential Roman Catholic priestly order whose founder was discovered to be a sexual molester and to have had at least one child with a mistress.

Pope Benedict XVI (C) blesses his faithful as he celebrates a mass at the Santo Volto di Gesù (Holy Face of Jesus) church in the outskirts of Rome March 29, 2009. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

The Legionaries of Christ announced the inspection, known in Church language as an “Apostolic Visitation,” Tuesday. The Vatican privately informed the order on March 10.

The conservative Legionaries, have been shaken over the past several years by a string of scandals tied to their founder, Father Marcial Maciel, who died last year at the age of 87.

Last month, the order said it had found evidence that he had lived a double life for decades.

While running an order of priests who take vows of celibacy, he had a mistress with whom he fathered at least one child.

In 2006, Pope Benedict told Maciel to retire to a life of “prayer and penitence” after accusations that he had molested boy and men seminarians decades earlier.

The order had denied the molestation charges for years but the Vatican moved against Maciel after new evidence emerged. At the time, the sanctions against Maciel made him one of the most prominent persons to be disciplined for sexual abuse.

The “Apostolic Visitation” can lead to sanctions and disciplinary action. Such probes are not frequent and can last for months.

Father Alvaro Corcuera, the current head of the order, said in a letter to its members he hoped the investigation would “help (us) to face our present vicissitudes related to the grave facts in our father founder’s life.”

The investigators will visit Legionaries’ seminaries and other institutions, such as schools, retreat houses and universities around the world.

Founded by Maciel, a Mexican, in 1941, the conservative order now has about 800 priests and 2,500 seminarians in more than 20 countries. It also runs a pontifical university in Rome. Like in many religious institutions, the founder became a cult figure among members, even while he was alive.

The revelations about Maciel have dealt a moral blow to the priestly order and its lay branch, Regnum Christi, which says it has tens of thousands of members.

George Weigel, a Washington-based Catholic theologian, said the investigation will have to discover who within the order was complicit in Maciel’s web of deceit. Eventually the pope will have to decide if the Legionaries should be reformed or dissolved, he said.