Father Cliff Ermatinger had always wanted to be a Catholic priest, but he'd begun to doubt the path he'd taken, through the order known as the Legionaries of Christ.JSOnline
Then, last year, Legion leaders and the Vatican all but confirmed what had been rumored for decades: that the Legion's late founder had lived a double life as a philandering husband and notorious pedophile.
Ermatinger knew then it was time to go.
"As soon as I knew the truth, I knew what I had to do," said Ermatinger, who took over this week as pastor at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church on Milwaukee's south side. "It was like a light went on, and I just started preparing myself."
Ermatinger, 46, is one of two Legionaries who have asked to shift their affiliation to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Father Robert Weighner, 47, starts his new post at St. Anne's Parish in Pleasant Prairie on Monday.
The men, both of whom are in a three-year discernment process required to leave an order, are thought to be the first Legionaries to work in the archdiocese.
"They're coming at the invitation . . . of Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki," archdiocese spokeswoman Julie Wolf said in an e-mail. "He knows them both and feels like they would be an asset to the archdiocese."
The Legionaries of Christ, one of the wealthiest and most influential orders in the Catholic Church, has been rocked in recent years by revelations that its founder, the late Marcial Maciel Degollado, had fathered several children by at least two women and molested young seminarians over decades.
Maciel, who died in 2008, was banned from public ministry in 2006, but it wasn't until this year that the Vatican fully acknowledged his sins, issuing a statement saying he had committed "true crimes" and condemning him as immoral and devoid of scruples and "authentic religious feeling."
Dozens of Legion priests have moved to leave the order in the year since the Vatican launched a sweeping investigation of Maciel and the Legion, said Jack Keogh, a former priest who recounts 20 years in the order in his memoir, "Driving Straight on Crooked Lines."
"Many, especially younger American recruits, resent the fact that the Vatican and their superiors hid the truth about Maciel from the rank and file for so long," he said.
Weighner and Ermatinger, both of whom spent two decades in the Legion in posts around the world, said the revelations affected their decisions to leave. However, both said they'd been contemplating diocesan life for some time.
Founded by Maciel in Mexico 1941, the conservative Legion had drawn a worldwide following with as many as 800 priests, 2,500 seminarians, and 70,000 in its lay organization, Regnum Christi, according to some estimates. Its assets have been estimated at more than $33 billion.
Allegations of abuse had dogged Maciel for years, but he avoided Vatican scrutiny, according to some news accounts, by plying key cardinals with gifts and money.
Derided by some as a cult, the order has been described as strict and secretive. It's been banned from some U.S. dioceses and barred from working with minors in at least one other because of its persuasive methods of attracting young recruits.
Both Ermatinger and Weighner joined the Legion as young men in their 20s.
"I was drawn by the mission and formation, the stress on spiritual growth and study," said Ermatinger, a Chicago native who was a student of Listecki's when he taught at Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary.
Ermatinger, who speaks six languages and has authored books on spirituality, hesitated when asked whether he considered the order cultlike.
"I didn't know any other religious life," he said. "I knew there were orders with very strict rules. . . . It's not like it's a shock."
Ermatinger spent the past year at a Chicago parish and sought out Milwaukee, he said, because he has family here. Weighner spent a year in the Diocese of La Crosse, where Listecki was bishop before coming to Milwaukee in January.
Ermatinger said he has no regrets about joining the Legion, or leaving it.
"There are a lot of good people there, they love our lord and they really want to serve him," he said.
"But vocation is such an intimate question. At the end of the day, it comes down to the question: What is your will for me?
"And that's something nobody can answer for you. It's something each one of us has to figure out on our own."