The following is reporter Gerald Renner’s response to an open letter that appears on the Web site operated by the Legion of Christ at http://www.legionofchrist.org. The open letter criticizes a story on The Donnellan School in Atlanta, which appeared as NCR’s cover story in its Nov. 3 issue. To see the Legion’s open letter, go to its Website, click on Search and search using the words Gerald Renner.
An open letter from the Legionaries of Christ? on the organization’s Website chooses to attack me for the stories I have written about them rather than examine what it is about the way they operate that alienates a significant number of people — lay and clerical — wherever they set up shop.
Following the example of the open letter, let me provide some background to put the stories in perspective.
I do not have now, nor have I ever had, an anti-Legionary agenda. I’ve been a journalist for 40 years and a specialist in religion reporting for 25 of them. In reporting on the Legion, or any other group, I’ve tried to follow the basic precepts of good journalism.
The first I knew of the Legion’s existence was in 1989 when I was on assignment in Rome for The Hartford (Conn.) Courant to cover a meeting of the 35 American archbishops with Pope John Paul II and Vatican officials.
The late Archbishop John F. Whealon of Hartford pointed out to me on a drive through the city the headquarters building of what he called that controversial, conservative religious order that has a seminary in Cheshire.
He explained that he was talking about the Legionaries of Christ, an order I had never heard of despite the fact its U.S. headquarters was in Connecticut. When I got home and checked the newspaper’s files I found the Courant had never written about the order or its seminary. As the newspaper’s fulltime religion writer, I thought this had been an oversight. I called the seminary to inquire whether I could visit and write a feature story about it.
That was the beginning of a runaround and of stonewalling by the Legion that I have long since become familiar with. I was told I had to seek the permission of the national director, Fr. Anthony Bannon, to write anything. But he was never available, despite calls I made to him over the course of several years. I even visited the seminary personally one day to the consternation of the seminarian-receptionist and was again told I had to talk to Fr. Bannon.
Finally, one day in 1993, Fr. Bannon himself happened to pick up the phone when I called. He told me in no uncertain terms the order did not want any publicity and that he did not trust the press. The only way he would provide information for an article, he said, if he had the right to review it after it was written, something that is journalistically unacceptable.
Research into the Catholic Periodical Index indicated that the Catholic press, likewise, hadn’t written about the Legion, except for a small, laudatory article about the success of the order’s seminary in Cheshire in the National Catholic Register, a private weekly newspaper then owned by multimillionaire businessman Patrick Frawley in Encino, Calif.
The Register, along with another weekly newspaper, then called Twin Circle, were moved to Hamden, Conn., when Frawley sold them to a Legion-connected group. That led to my first story about the order (Catholic Legionaries expand base in state,Courant, March 25, 1996, Page 1).
I had to write the story without Legion cooperation, although I was able to draw on a 1995 article in the Rome-based magazine, Inside the Vatican, about the founding of the Legionaries in Mexico in 1941.
Despite their being moved to Connecticut, the newspapers were incorporated as Circle Media? in Albany, N.Y., where non-profit organizations did not have to disclose their principals. A Manhattan lawyer, Richard Ellenbogen, was named as the agent to receive correspondence.
The religious order is not terribly interested in a whole lot of publicity in what they are doing, Ellenbogen told me. If the fathers are not forthcoming, I cannot tell you anything else.?
Yet, the order wonders aloud in its open letter why it is called secretive.
As I was to soon find out, one story would inevitably lead to another. On Monday, March 26, 1996, the day after that first article, I got a call from a man who said he had been a seminarian in the Legion at Cheshire and in a satellite seminary the Legion ran near Mount Kisco, N.Y. He said he and another novice had fled from the seminary without permission when their religious superiors kept rebuffing their pleas to leave.
It was such a bizarre claim that I was skeptical. Was this a religious nut or what? But he sounded stable. We had a personal meeting, and he repeated his story convincingly. He put me in touch with three other former novices. Two of them said they had similar experiences of being psychologically coerced by overzealous religious superiors. The third, who had been in a Legion-operated seminary in Mexico said he had to beg for his passport and clothes to go home after being repeatedly rebuffed.
I turned to Fr. Bannon for response only to be told by his secretary that the Courant was only trying to stir up scandal? and that he did not expect Fr. Bannon to respond. Only after the article appeared did Fr. Bannon send a statement denying the accusations. His statement was published in the Courant.
Now the Legion in its open letter disclaims the harrowing tale of two men who supposedly had to escape in secret in order to leave.
Indeed it was harrowing. The men told of how they broke into an attic to retrieve their suitcases. They hid them under their beds and watched for an opportunity to retrieve them unobserved. That came one day when the students were at athletics. They hid their bags in bushes and jogged into Mount Kisco. There one of them called a friend to pick them up.
One of them may well have remained on good terms with the Legion after he left, as the open letter says. He wanted to enter a diocesan seminary and needed to remain on good terms so he wouldn’t be blocked. The last I heard from him, he is much happier.
I am baffled by the open letter’s claim that I talked to other ex-seminarians, but as soon as they had something positive to say of the Legion the interview was ended.
I’ve talked to a number of former Legionary priests and seminarians. Most of them wish anonymity because they want to leave the past behind them and get on with their lives. I never ever ended an interview when someone said something positive about the Legion.
The most explosive story of all resulted from a tip from a priest who was not connected to the Legion. Published in the Courant on Feb. 23, 1997, after months of investigation, it began:
After decades of silence, nine men have come forward to accuse the head of an international Roman Catholic order of sexually abusing them when they were boys and young men training to be priests.
The men, in interviews in the United States and Mexico, said the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, molested them in Spain and Italy during the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
The story was reported and written by me and a colleague, Jason Berry, author of the prize-winning 1992 book Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children.
Maciel’s accusers said they decided to go public because Pope John Paul II did not respond to letters from two priests sent through church channels in 1978 and again in 1989 seeking an investigation.
After the pope praised Maciel in 1994 as an efficacious guide to youth,? they got in touch with Berry.
The former Legionaries making the accusations included three professors, a priest, a teacher, an engineer, a rancher and a lawyer. A professor who was a former priest and who died in 1995 left behind an accusatory deathbed statement.
Fr. Maciel, who is based in Rome, declined to be interviewed, but denied any wrongdoing through the law firm of Kirkland and Ellis. The Legion said Maciel was the victim of a plot by disgruntled former members of the order to depose him.
In a letter to the editor of the Courant published on March 2, 1997, Maciel denied the accusations as defamations and falsities with no foundation whatsoever and said he was praying for his accusers.
The Vatican has kept silent on the matter and, in fact, late in 1997, the pope appointed Fr. Maciel as one of his special delegates to the Synod for America. Several of the accusers subsequently filed formal complaints under canon law directly to the Holy See, but what is being done, if anything, I do not know.
The open letter accuses me of willfully? ignoring essential facts that discredit the accusers’ story. We weighed most carefully all of the essential facts the law firm offered to counter the accusations.
The “open letter” repeats the mantra-like refrains of the defense that we took most seriously but in the course of our investigation thought did not ring true.
For example, the Legion claimed that Juan Manuel Fernandez Amenabar, the former Legion priest who made a deathbed statement accusing Fr. Maciel of having sexually abused him, could not have done so because he was incoherent and in a virtual coma.
They produced a supporting statement from a man they said was the physician who took care of Amenabar. But on double-checking we found that the alleged physician, Raul de Anda Gomez, was not a medical doctor at all but a psychotherapist. Furthermore, he did not even attend to Fernandez.
The real physician who took care of the dying man, Dr. Gabriela Quintero Calleja, told us that Fernandez made his declaration in full use of his mental faculties. She was a witness to his statement.
A psychologist who was among the hospital team that attended to Fernandez supported Dr. Quintero’s evaluation.
It was such a major discrepancy it called into question everything the Legion was telling us. At the last moment, the day we went to press and so informed the law firm we were doing so, they sprang on us an affidavit from a former priest recanting the earlier accusations he had made against Fr. Maciel. He had originally made his claims in a tearful interview with Mr. Berry and in a detailed affidavit. The retraction read hollowly and without the intimate detail that gave so much credence to his original account.
The retraction appeared to have been coerced. We cited both it and his original affidavit.
The open letter goes on to say the accusers had a decades-long history of trying to discredit Fr. Maciel. Not true. The Legion from the beginning has tried to link his present-day accusers with those in the 1950s whose complaints against Fr. Maciel led to his temporary suspension under Pope Pius XII. The nature of the complaints against Fr. Maciel, whether they were of a sexual nature or mismanagement, remains in dispute.
But those making the accusations today were young boys in seminary in the late 1950s. They say they lied at the time to Vatican investigators to protect the man they calledNuestro Padre.
I thought I had done with the Legion when I retired from the Courant at the end of March, after having reported from Israel on the pope’s trip there. But it was a tar baby I couldn’t get rid of.
At the end of August the National Catholic Reporter got several calls from parents in Atlanta who had children at The Donnellan School, the assets of which had been sold by the archdiocese to the Legion the year before. They were fearful of the changes being made and felt they were losing the close-knit collegiality between teachers and parents that made the school such a success.
I had got similar calls in recent years from parents elsewhere unhappy with the direction of their schools under Legion control or in the Legion’s sights — from Dallas, Cincinnati, northern Kentucky, Milwaukee, San Diego.
More recently, I’ve heard from parents in Naples, Fla., and Calgary, Canada.
What is the Legion, on a supposedly evangelical mission to re-Christianize the Catholic church, doing to upset so many people in so many places?
The open letter says my story argues that the Legionaries make a practice of taking over schools that others have worked to start. Exactly so. Talk to the parents in Cincinnati who lost control when they suddenly found their board taken over by Regnum Christi and given to the order. Or talk to parents of an independent school in Calgary newly awakened to the possibility (fear?) of taking direction from the Legion. Or talk to San Diego parents who have fended off the Legion.
Now the Legion may certainly have inspired lay leaders of Regnum Christi to try to get a school going. But the other parents they involve are seldom aware they are part of a front group working for eventual control by the Legion and are shocked when it happens.
Despite hearing from many people involved in these school controversies, I never wrote about the schools until the editor of the National Catholic Reporter asked me to undertake the assignment in Atlanta.
The open letter makes much of the fact that these calls came even before the four staff members were fired dramatically on Sept. 13 as if that was the main concern. However, a substantial number of parents and teachers were upset at what was going on even before the firings.
Indeed, I had heard directly from some concerned parents the year before after Sr. Dawn Gear was forced out by the board in January 1999 and Fr. John Hopkins showed up aschaplain in March of that year, several months before the formal sale to the Legion-controlled corporation.
The claim in the Legion’s open letter that Sr. Gear’s leaving had nothing to do with the subsequent Legionary affiliation is disingenuous at best. It was already in the works. It was not as if the board forced her out and then said, Oh, gee, what do we do now?
In late August, parents were upset that school officers were trying to foist an amended contract on the principal of the lower school and that the guidance counselor was being pressured to inform Fr. Hopkins of the students who sought counseling and the nature of their problems. There were other concerns as well, not least of which was that, according to the parents, the Legionaries had not been direct and open about their intentions. Parents felt they were being kept in the dark about many things.
I heard about an emotional meeting of the board with parents on Sept. 14 and learned about a meeting the board called to thrash out the issues at 8 a.m., Saturday, Sept. 30.
I reckoned on that Sept. 30 meeting as a good place to hear from all sides and booked a flight to Atlanta to attend. But it was not to be. The board cancelled the meeting and said some board members could meet with small groups of parents who had concerns. They refused to allow the parents who wanted to hold their own meeting to use the school. The parents instead met at Peachtree Presbyterian Church. More than 100 parents attended. Most of them felt manipulated, betrayed and outraged.
My attempts to reach those who felt differently were to no avail. The board told parents it would be destructive to talk to the media.
My calls for comment to key people at the school went unanswered — to Fr. Hopkins, the Legion priest; Msgr. Edward Dillon, the school president; and to Frank Hanna III, the wealthy Regnum Christi board member. I was told Hanna was a key player in the decision to make Donnellan a Legion school. Mr. Hanna’s wife told me he did not want to talk to me. She refused to give me his office number.
A spokeswoman for the archdiocese said Archbishop John Donoghue would have no comment but referred me to a letter the archbishop wrote to parents defending the decision to turn the school over to the Legion. I also had the minutes of the Sept. 14 meeting kept by the parents association.
The only one who agreed to speak to me was Matthew S. Coles, the lawyer for both the school and the archdiocese. Here it is again, I thought: deja? vu. Dealing with the Legion means going through a lawyer. But most of what Coles had to say was for background only, not for quotation.
By then the lawyer for the four aggrieved staff members, those who were fired, had filed the first of what were to be three lawsuits against the school and the board. I agreed to hold up writing the story until Coles had a chance to make a legal response. He promised to e-mail me a copy.
It described the firings as justifiable because, the legal document said, the former teachers and administrators had been undermining the authority of the new owners. But it failed to address many other issues the parents were concerned about, including what they said was the underhanded way the Legion went about gaining and exercising its authoritarian control.
We were near deadline, but I felt we should go to the Legionaries national headquarters for a last effort to get some kind of substantive response. I inquired of the seminarian who answered the phone whether anyone would be willing to talk to me, perhaps the national director, Fr. Anthony Bannon, or Fr. Owen Kearns, editor-in-chief and publisher of the National Catholic Register. We were on deadline, I told him, and needed a speedy response. He said he would pass on my request.
Another day went by, and I heard nothing. I called again. This time the person who answered said I should talk to their public relations director, Jay Dunlap, an addition to the Legion’s staff since last I reported on them. Dunlap was forthcoming with his responses in defense of the Legion, and I quoted him liberally in my story.
Dunlap also suggested I would be remiss if I did not include comments from some Donnellan parents who welcomed the Legionaries presence at the school. I said I would like to talk to some supportive parents.
He called me back minutes later and gave me the names and phone numbers of two parents who were happy with the Legion in Atlanta. One of them, Kitty Moots, refused to speak with me when I called her. I don’t believe in a media circus, she said. She said she wouldneed permission? to speak. This baffled me. Permission from whom? Someone in authority at the school, she answered. When I told her Jay Dunlap, the public relations man for the Legion in Orange, Conn., suggested I talk with her, she told me she did not know him. I reached the answering machine of the second person the Legion referred me to.
Meanwhile Fr. Kearns called the editor of the National Catholic Reporter directly, as did Ms. Moots — apparently having received permission — and the other supporter, Jay Morgan. Comments from all of them were incorporated into the story.
On one point, I stand corrected. The Legionary school in Edgerton, Wis., attended by boys from Latin America, is not an apostolic school, a place where boys considering the priesthood attend. The only such school in the country is in Centre Harbor, N.H.
National Catholic Reporter, posted December 11, 2000