By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Leaders of the scandal-plagued Legionaries of Christ religious order knew that their most famous priest had fathered a child for many months before they acknowledged it this week, a top Vatican official told Reuters on Wednesday.
The once influential religious order, still in crisis following revelations that its founder was a sexual abuser with two secret families, suffered another major blow on Tuesday when American Father Thomas Williams admitted to having fathered a child with a woman in Rome.
The question left hanging was how long the order's leaders knew about Williams's secret life and why they continued to let him preach, teach and appear on television around the world, particularly in the United States.
"I found out about it this year," Italian Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, who was appointed by Pope Benedict in July, 2010 to oversee the restructuring of the order, told Reuters in a telephone conversation from his home.
Asked if he meant since the beginning of this year, he said "yes".
Williams was the public face of the order, appearing often on American television networks to explain Church teachings. He was the author of more than a dozen books, including one called "Knowing Right From Wrong: A Christian Guide to Conscience."
He was a big draw on the lecture circuit at Catholic institutions and had two websites, both of which were shut down on Tuesday after the order issued its statement about him.
The order's leaders have given no explanation of why they waited before taking action against Williams, who is now in the United States and has been ordered to take a year away from practicing the priesthood in public.
"There is a need to be careful in cases like this. It concerns a private life. These things happen these days, unfortunately," De Paolis said.
He stressed that Williams' case was not one of pedophilia and no crime was committed.
Still, the last thing the Legionaries needed was another scandal as they try to pick themselves up from a crisis that has rocked the entire Roman Catholic Church.
FOUNDER LED DOUBLE LIFE FOR DECADES
The Legionaries have been at the centre of controversy since 2009 when they were forced to admit that their charismatic Mexican founder, Father Marcial Maciel, had led a double life.
Maciel, who made huge financial contributions to the Vatican, secretly fathered children with at least two women, used drugs, misused donations and sexually abused seminarians.
He had enjoyed the support of the late Pope John Paul and was spared official censure for years despite what critics say was overwhelming proof of his crimes.
Some churchmen say the scandal may delay John Paul's road to sainthood. Last year he was beatified, the last step before being made a saint.
Pope Benedict ordered Maciel to retire in 2006 to a life of "prayer and penitence" when the evidence could no longer be disputed, and he died in disgrace in 2008.
Last week the order was hit by another scandal when the Vatican said that its doctrinal department was investigating seven Legionaries on suspicion of sexually abusing children decades ago.
Williams, who taught at Pontifical Regina Apostolorum University in Rome, said in a statement that he was "truly sorry to everyone who is hurt by this revelation".
"A number of years ago I had a relationship with a woman and fathered her child. I am deeply sorry for this grave transgression and have tried to made amends," Williams said.
Father Luis Garza, the Legionaries' head for North America said in a letter to members that Williams would undergo a period of "reflection, prayer and atonement without public ministry".
The Legionaries of Christ runs private Catholic schools and charitable organizations in 22 countries via its network of 800 priests and 2,600 seminarians. The order's lay movement, known as Regnum Christi, has around 75,000 members.
(This version of the story was corrected to say that the cardinal is Italian, not Spanish in paragraph 4)
(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Barry Moody)