VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis is signaling the reform process of the troubled Legion of Christ religious order will stretch beyond next year's target date amid continued reservations about whether it has truly changed its ways following revelations its founder was a pedophile.

In a letter made public Wednesday, Francis confirmed the order would convene a general assembly in early 2014 to elect a new leadership and approve a revised set of constitutions.

Francis said these would be "fundamental steps in the path towards authentic and profound renewal" — an indication that the reform project will hardly end next year and that these events are just one step in the process.

Then-Pope Benedict XVI took over the Legion in 2010 after a Vatican investigation determined its Mexican founder led a double life: The late Rev. Marcial Maciel sexually molested seminarians and fathered three children with two women. One of his children says he molested him as well.

Benedict ordered a wholesale reform of the order after finding serious problems with its culture and appointed a papal delegate, Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, to oversee the process. Many priests disillusioned with De Paolis' efforts have left, convinced that no true reform is possible when a religious order's founder has been so discredited and when the essential spirit guiding it is so undefined. In addition, many of the leaders who covered up Maciel's crimes, or their protégés, are still in positions of power.

Francis said De Paolis' term would end after the 2014 general chapter — before the reform of the Legion's lay branch Regnum Christi is completed.

He also urged all Legion priests to dedicate themselves to discerning their vocation "within the church and the world" — a somewhat cryptic call that could be read as encouraging the priests to critically question whether they should remain in the order.

"They were directed to reform; that's what they say they're doing," said Genevieve Kinecke, a former Regnum Christi member who runs a popular blog helping former Legion priests and lay members who have left the order. She suggested the reform process had been cosmetic at best and never addressed the key question of the cult-like dynamic that created the problems in the first place.

"They misled the church before, and that same duplicity is so deeply embedded in the congregation that they can proceed in no other way," she said in an email.

The Maciel scandal has been particularly damaging for the church given that he was held up by Pope John Paul II as a model for the faithful, admired for his perceived orthodoxy and his ability to bring in money and new seminarians.

Since the scandal broke in 2009, the number of seminarians has dropped significantly, the Legion has closed schools and the number of priestly ordinations this year is expected to be well below the average of 40 the Legion has maintained for years.

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Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield

 

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