VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI cracked down Saturday on the scandal-plagued Legionaries of Christ, announcing that a papal envoy would take over and reform the conservative order that has been discredited by revelations that its founder sexually abused seminarians and fathered at least one child.

Benedict also ordered a special panel to study the Legionaries’ constitutions and said a Vatican expert would investigate its lay arm, Regnum Christi.

The decisions were made after five Vatican investigators reported to Benedict and other Vatican officials about an eight-month global inquiry into the order to determine its future after its founder was discredited.

In a statement, the Vatican excoriated the Rev. Marciel Maciel for creating a “system of power” built on silence, deceit and obedience that enabled him to lead a double life “devoid of any scruples and authentic sense of religion” and allowed him to abuse young boys unchecked.

“By pushing away and casting doubt upon all those who questioned his behavior, and the false belief that he wasn’t doing harm to the good of the Legion, he created around him a defense mechanism that made him unassailable for a long period, making it difficult to know his true life,” the Vatican said.

But rather than closing the order down, which some critics had called for, the Vatican assured the Legionaries that it would help “purify” what good remains in the order.

The Maciel case has long been seen as emblematic of Vatican inaction on abuse complaints, since his victims tried in the 1990s to bring a canonical trial against him but were shut down by his supporters at the Vatican.

It wasn’t until 2006 — a year into Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy — that the Vatican ordered Maciel to lead a “reserved life of penance and prayer,” making him a priest in name only.

The Vatican statement was remarkable in its denunciation of Maciel’s crimes and deception, but it placed the blame almost entirely on him. It made no mention of any complicity on the part of Vatican officials who had held up Maciel, who died in 2008 at 87, as a model for the faithful.

Jason Berry, who co-authored the initial reports in 1997 in The Hartford Courant detailing the allegations of abuse against Maciel, said the statement was strong but left unresolved whether Benedict would eventually confront Vatican complicity in Maciel’s misdeeds.

The late Pope John Paul II long championed the Legionaries for their orthodoxy and ability to bring in vocations and money.