Controversial order opens new boarding school, Ultraconservative founder draws criticism and praise.
September 12, 2005
Kevin McKenzie, left, and Gregory Heslip, Legionaries of Christ seminarians, speak about the order’s new “minor seminary” at Rolling Prairie for grades 7 through 12. Both men, now 23 and 24, say they first entered such schools at age 12 and 14.
The Legionaries of Christ is calling this “minor seminary” school, its third in the United States, Sacred Heart Apostolic School. It ultimately is to contain grades 7 through 12, but has begun this school year with a group of 18 boys in seventh and eighth grades. The school plans to add a grade level each year with an ultimate goal of 100 to 120 students, spokesman Jay Dunlap said.
The orthodox religious order, which claims 600 priests and 2,500 seminarians in 20 countries, has been embraced by conservative Catholics such as the late Pope John Paul II and actor/director Mel Gibson, whose movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” enraged many Jewish people over how they were portrayed.
But critics say the Legionaries of Christ recruits boys at too young an age for the priesthood, isolates them from their families and “brainwashes” them to follow its conservative doctrine, forbids members from criticizing their leaders, is ruthless in its fundraising, and, among other things, violates the confidentiality of confession by forcing seminarians to confess their sins to priests who also act as their superiors.
On top of those concerns are sexual abuse allegations from at least eight men — some of whom went on to become priests — against the congregation’s powerful founder, Rev. Marcial Maciel.The men, most of whom are Mexican, say Maciel molested them in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s while they were seminarians.
The Legion’s sharpest critic is a group called the Religious Groups Awareness International Network which formed in 2003 as a communications outlet for men and women who have had bad experiences with the Legion or its lay movement, Regnum Christi. The network could contain up to 800 members, ReGAIN board member Glenn Favreau said.
Is there an investigation?
Favreau, 41, entered a Legion seminary at age 20 and by 33 was just a few months away from ordination as a priest when he quit. He is now a law student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Favreau said he left partly because he came to realize that Maciel leads an opulent life, despite the vows of poverty Legionaries are supposed to take.
“I began to see less and less of Jesus Christ and more of power plays of individuals,” Favreau said.
As a seminarian, Favreau said he was not allowed much contact with his parents. Those who want to leave find it difficult, sometimes because they are convinced that if they leave they will go to hell, and sometimes because they have no money or resources, Favreau and other former Legion seminarians have said.
“They control people to the nth degree … they brainwash,” he said. “They really put a clamp on your conscience and everything in your conscience is managed and reported to a very small number of superiors.”
Dunlap, the Legion spokesman, categorically refuted ReGAIN’s accusations, and called the group a “vocal minority.”
“They’re people who were Legionaries for some time but they weren’t happy, and now they’ve chosen to be negative about it, which is sad,” Dunlap said.
“Time and time again we’ve had families send more than one son to our schools because they see they’re getting an excellent education and spiritual formation,” Dunlap said. “The vast majority of families that have had an experience with our schools speak very highly of them.”
Dunlap said the Legion has investigated ReGAIN’s complaints and found no evidence of their validity. And he said the Vatican conducted a thorough investigation in the late 1950s into the sexual abuse allegations against Maciel, and found they were unsubstantiated.
Dunlap referred to a statement issued in May by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, reportedly a longtime friend of Maciel’s, which said there was no longer an investigation and none was foreseen. The statement was picked up widely by news outlets worldwide.
However, the National Catholic Reporter published a story a few days later noting that it is the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly headed by the man who is now Pope Benedict XVI, that has authority over such cases.
John Allen, who covers the Vatican for the National Catholic Reporter, told The Tribune that his sources, whom he does not name, say the investigation remains ongoing.
“The office that handles these cases has said nothing, but I and others have reported that they’re continuing their preliminary investigation,” Allen said.
More alleged victims came forward in 1994, after being angered when Pope John Paul II called Maciel an “efficacious guide to youth,” according to a National Catholic Reporter story.
Father Richard McBrien, a nationally known theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, believes the sexual abuse allegations are credible, based largely on his reading of a book detailing them, “Vows of Silence — The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II,” by Catholic writers Jason Berry and Gerald Renner.
In a review on the book’s cover, McBrien calls the Legion “cultlike.”
“If he were a United States priest living here under the new guidelines adopted by the Conference of Bishops, he would be removed from ministry,” McBrien said of Maciel, 84, who founded the order in Mexico City in 1941 and stepped down as its leader last year. “It reflects on the whole congregation, of course it does. What kind of organization do we have here?”
Dunlap said McBrien is more likely to believe the allegations because he is a liberal who disagrees with the Legion’s conservative dogma.
McBrien also has a problem with recruiting boys for the priesthood at such a young age.
“I think it’s pretty bad,” he said. “If I were a parent, I wouldn’t let them do it.”
But Kevin McKenzie, a 23-year-old Legion seminarian who works on recruiting, said he knew at age 7 that he wanted to be a priest.
“I said, ‘Hey, I can do this and maybe this is what God wants me to be,'” he said. “It’s not like everyone who goes there becomes a priest, it’s just an environment where you can focus on whether you want to be a priest.”
Not welcome everywhere
Bishops in Minneapolis/St. Paul and Columbus, Ohio, have banned the Legion from operating in their areas, while another diocese, Baton Rouge, La., has expressed concerns.
In a November letter to his pastors and parish life administrators, St. Paul/Minneapolis Bishop Harry Flynn said neither the Legion nor its lay group, Regnum Christi, were to be active in any way in the archdiocese. Flynn wrote that pastors “continue to sense that a ‘parallel church’ is being encouraged, one that separates persons from the local parish and archdiocese, and creates competing structures. That is simply unacceptable.”
Fort Wayne/South Bend Bishop John D’Arcy declined to comment on the Legion.
Gary Diocese Bishop Dale Melczek, in whose diocese Rolling Prairie lies, gave the Legion his permission to open the school, but not to operate programs, raise money or recruit future seminarians in diocese parishes, said his spokesman, Father Brian Chadwick.
McBrien urged Melczek to make sure the Legion confines itself to running the school.
“My advice to him is to be careful,” McBrien said. “Keep a watch over them because these types of groups try to push the envelope and expand their influence in the diocese.”
While the Legion of Christ has drawn opposition from some bishops at the diocesan level, it has benefited from some strong support in the Vatican.
In November, Pope John Paul II granted the congregation authority to operate the Pontifical Institute, “Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center,” in Jerusalem. The complex, which includes a church, restaurants, a conference center and a hotel, acts as a welcome center for visiting clergy and Catholic individuals and families from around the world.
Also, the Congregation for Bishops has entrusted the Regina Apostolorum, the Legionaries of Christ university in Rome, with annual training sessions for newly appointed bishops from around the world, and Maciel was in the front row for the pope’s 2001 visit to Mexico, Allen said.
Dunlap noted that the Legion plays an active role in many dioceses, such as Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis.
“Places where the Legion is known and its institutions are set, we’re just part of the landscape,” Dunlap said.
Favreau, with ReGAIN, claims the Legion is losing so many seminarians that it needs to bolster recruiting by opening new minor seminaries, in addition to its ones in Center Harbor, N.H., and Colfax, Calif.
But Dunlap said the opposite is true.
“We wouldn’t be starting a school here if we were shrinking,” he said. “We’ve started a school here because our school in New Hampshire is bursting at the seams.”