MEXICO CITY - The Legionaries of Christ, a conservative Roman Catholic order that once had absolute Vatican support, has been disgraced.

MEXICO CITY - The Legionaries of Christ, a conservative Roman Catholic order that once had absolute Vatican support, has been disgraced.

Revelations that its charismatic Mexican founder led a double life that included abusing young boys and fathering children has rocked the order.

Now it faces the prospect of a second serious setback as the wealthy donors who helped build it into an influential movement consider whether to go on contributing to such a shamed organisation.

Combined with damning findings from a Vatican probe this month, the future of the order is in doubt

Osvaldo Moreno, a spokesman for the legion, said it was too soon to say if donations were dropping off and no significant change had been detected.

But he admitted the global media attention on the seedy details of Father Marcial Maciel's sexual escapades was not helping.

"We've been on the front pages of newspapers, Internet sites, TV shows, radio. It's surprising, terrible," Moreno said.

Leaders of the order in March apologised "to all those who have been affected, wounded or scandalised by the reprehensible actions of our founder".

At its peak the legion, present across the world and founded in 1941, amassed a fortune and operated a yearly budget of more than R4946million.

But Catholic scholars say some disillusioned patrons are already snapping shut their cheque books.

"There will be a significant reduction (in money raised) and competitors such as Opus Dei, another Catholic order, will benefit," Fernando M Gonzalez, who has written books on Maciel and is one of the leading scholars on the Legion, said.

Many followers were disgusted when the Vatican concluded an exhaustive investigation in May by saying that Maciel - a revered figure who died in 2008 aged 87 and still a priest - was "devoid of scruple" and guilty of "immoral behavior ... (that) resulted in actual crimes".

Despite years of allegations, Maciel was spared official condemnation until 2006 when Pope Benedict obligated him to retire to a life of "prayer and penitence".

Founded by Maciel when he was in his early 20s, the legion is a priestly order that runs private Catholic schools and charitable organisations in 22 countries via its network of 800 priests and 2600 seminarians.

The order's lay movement, known as Regnum Christi, has about 75000 members.

The order ran schools to cultivate "consecrated" men and women who would dedicate themselves to a monastic life.

Pupils followed a military-style discipline, took vows of silence, swore off physical contact and limited visits with friends and family. High tuition and regular donations were said to go to support charity and low-cost schools for the poor.

As head of the legion, Maciel was close to Pope John Paul II, who once described him as an "efficacious guide to youth".

The Vatican inquiry into Maciel's double life, revelations of which have been leaking out for years, comes as the church is in its worst crisis in decades over a rash of child sex abuse cases involving Catholic priests around the world.

The Vatican has called for the legion to be re-founded, but it is not clear what that will mean.

For now, church officials must walk a delicate line, distancing themselves from Maciel's legacy while trying not to alienate the deep pockets that have supported the legion for years.

Prominent backers have included the owners of Mexican bread maker Bimbo and Carlos Slim, the telecoms magnate who is listed by Forbes as the world's richest man.

"The legion contributed a huge amount to the Vatican. To go against them ... is like economic suicide," Gonzalez said.

One of the lewdest revelations about Maciel surfaced in March, when a Mexican woman, Blanca Gonzalez, told a radio programme that she had two sons with Maciel.

She said that when she was 19 and met the 56-year-old priest, he lied about his identity, alternately claiming he was an oil executive, a private detective and a CIA agent.

Her son with Maciel, Raul Gonzalez, and another son from a previous marriage told the same radio programme he sexually abused them over a period of eight years.

"The first time was when I was 7-years-old. I was sleeping in the bed with him, like any child might do at that age, and he pulled down my underpants and tried to rape me," Raul Gonzalez said.

Legion officials acknowledged they were contacted by Raul Gonzalez. They say he promised to keep quiet about his story if the order paid him about R198million. The legion refused.

The radio programme aired without protest and a flurry of news articles followed - in sharp contrast to the reaction from Maciel's supporters to a 1997 TV broadcast of interviews with several men who claimed the priest abused them as young seminarians in the 40s, 50s and 60s.

The men told a small Mexican television station that Maciel would call them to his bedroom and force them to mutually masturbate to ease what he said was debilitating pain.

The men have also said the priest was addicted to morphine-like drugs.

The television station's owner, Javier Moreno, has often said that powerful supporters of Maciel, including government officials, tried to pressure him to pull the show.

Some cancelled valuable advertising campaigns when he went ahead and ran it.

Recently Moreno said Slim was among those who complained about the programme.

"Carlos Slim was one of the people closest to Father Maciel," Moreno said, detailing the hard push from the legion's powerful followers to pull the plug on the programme. - Reuters