Novices Accuse Catholic Order of Intimidation, Pressure

By Gerald Renner


The Hartford Courant/June 10, 1996

What follows is the article from the Hartford Courant, then an open letter from the Legion answering Gerald Renner, and then Mr. Renner’s response to that open letter. We apologize for the length of this piece, but we want to offer it to those doing more indepth research into the odd phenomenon of the Legion of Christ.
–ReGAIN editorial staff.


The Legionaries of Christ, a militaristically styled order of Roman Catholic priests based in Connecticut, calls recruiting candidates for the priesthood “capturing vocations.”

The language is more than figurative, say several men who accepted invitations last year to join the Legionaries’ novice training program.

They say that superiors of the tightly controlled, boot camp-like training program would not release them when they decided that priesthood in the Legion was not for them.

They say that the Legionaries tried to manipulate and intimidate them psychologically, refused to return their civilian clothes and subjected them to such intense pressure to stay that they felt they had no choice but to plan escapes and flee.

The Legionaries, who have their U.S. headquarters in Orange, refused to respond to inquiries from The Courant regarding the former novices’ allegations. The order declines most requests for interviews, even from Catholic periodicals.

Requests for an interview and questions in writing were directed last month to the order’s national director, the Rev. Anthony Bannon, through his secretary, Brother John Curran. Curran accused The Courant of stirring up “scandal” and said he did not expect Bannon to respond.

The allegations, if true, violate basic precepts of priestly formation in the Catholic Church, canon lawyers and other church sources say.

“The whole canonical process recognizes the primacy of conscience and free will. The last thing the church wants is for someone to stay because of psychological pressure,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest with the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, D.C. He has written extensively on church governance.

The men making the allegations spent last summer at the order’s seminary in Cheshire in a program “to test their vocations.” In September they were invited to become novices.

At this point everything is voluntary with no promises made or vows taken, in accord with general church practice. Becoming a novice is a first step in a process that might take as long as 13 years in the Legionaries to be ordained a priest. The Legionaries call priests in training “brothers” from the moment they enter the novitiate, which lasts two years.

The critics portrayed a day-and-night difference between the summer candidacy program, which reinvigorated their commitment to the faith, and their introduction to the novitiate, which they said they found so demeaning and manipulative they decided to leave. Each was a committed Catholic from a pious home of traditional devotion.

They said the program was intensive. Every second of their time was scheduled from the moment they were roused at 4:30 a.m. until bedtime, usually between 10 and 11 p.m. They had classes in religion, Latin, Greek and Spanish. They also said they had to memorize 368 verses of rules from a red hardcover book that governed everything they did, from how to eat (never eat an apple whole, pare it on a plate) to how to part their hair (on the left).

They said they needed permission to do everything, even to take an aspirin. They were not to ask questions, they said, but to do as they were told and they were never to speak critically about the Legion. They said their letters home were scrutinized before they were mailed and only positive things could be written. They said they had to write letters to seminarians they did not even know “on other fronts” — that is, Legionaries in other countries — and tell them how much they liked the Legionaries’ life.

They said they had no access to a telephone except through a monitored switchboard.

Some of the novices thrived on the strict discipline, the novices recounted. The ones who adapted best were the young men who had been with the Legionaries since they were as young as 12 years old, they said.

About 200 young men are reportedly in training at the seminary in Cheshire. Some are finishing high school and others are in the novitiate, doing preparatory studies for the priesthood before further schooling in Spain and Italy.

Some of the students in Cheshire came from the Immaculate Conception Apostolic School in Center Harbor, N.H., a boarding school for students in the seventh to ninth grades run by the Legionaries.

Two Mexican boys, 15 and 16 years old, are in the novitiate program, the former novices say. They point out that is contrary to canon law, which says that “one who had not yet completed the seventeenth year of age” may not be admitted into a novitiate.

Two former novices told The Courant how they separately engineered “escapes” after they had been sent from Cheshire to a secluded estate in Westchester County, New York.

The 100-acre estate sits on a hill behind a medireview-style watch tower in a heavily wooded section of New Castle, near Mt. Kisco. A mansion, extended with dormitory wings on either side, sits at the end of a winding half-mile-long private road. Town records show the Legionaries purchased the property in 1994 for $3.1 million from the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, commonly known as the Moonies.

The former novices allege that they were subjected to the same kind of mind-numbing, sleep-depriving tactics that the Moonies had been accused of using on recruits in the 1960s and ’70s.

Hugh McCaffery, 30, of Pensacola, Fla., said he kept saying he wanted to leave “but they laughed it off.”

“They’d say, `OK, you’re complaining, you’re venting, but you’ll get over it.’ ”

When he insisted he wanted to leave, “They told me to write down on paper what you don’t like and we will discuss it. I gave them a page and a half and said it was intolerable,” McCaffery said in atelephone interview from his home.

Still the order resisted releasing him, McCaffery said. “They are totally trained to tell you this is the fundamental option in life, and if you don’t choose it you will go to hell.”

He said the idea to flee crystalized one afternoon when a priest told the novices, “You guys think we are brainwashing you. You think we are stealing your personalities away. I said to myself that’s exactly what you are doing.”

At the end of November during an outdoor retreat, he said, he shed his cassock, folded it carefully on the ground, and fled.

“As soon as I got to the woods I started running like a deer. My sunglasses fell out. They cost me $80 but I didn’t stop to pick them up,” he said.

He said he ran 3 miles into Mt. Kisco. He had no money, he said, but rented a car with a credit card he had in his wallet and drove straight home to Pensacola, surprising his parents.

Several weeks before McCaffery fled, two other men made an elaborately planned getaway, according to an account one of them gave The Courant. He related how the fathers repeatedly brushed aside his request to be released.

Finally, he said, he and his companion broke into the mansion’s 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 Mt. Kisco.

He telephoned a friend. “I told him I just escaped from the seminary and I have a friend with me. Can you pick us up? He said, ‘no problem.’ ”

This man, in his 30s, at first talked freely and at length in a telephone call and a personal meeting but was ambivalent about being identified in a news story. He finally decided he did not want to be named because he thought it might jeopardize his chances to get into another seminary.

Also, he said, he talked to his “spiritual adviser” and “a couple of priests I think a lot of and they personally feel to go public would do more damage to the Catholic Church at this time.”

Another former novice who was sent from Cheshire to Monterrey, Mexico, said it took the order weeks after he said he wanted to quit to return him to the United States. The order held his money, passport and clothes so he couldn’t leave on his own, he said.

He, too, asked for anonymity.

“I fear retaliation if my full name is printed in your story because the Legion is a powerful, wealthy and secretive organization,” he wrote in a letter to The Courant. He also is seeking admission to another seminary.

“I became disillusioned and left the Legion over their brainwashing, which turns people into robot-like personalities, their unrealistic expectations, their pressure on members to obey rules and accomplish tasks, their ridicule, their secrecy, their manipulating and their pressure on members to raise money for the organization.”

The novices are expected to talk relatives into becoming part of what the order calls Regnum Christi,meaning the Kingdom of God, a lay adjunct to the Legionaries. Members are asked to make substantial contributions, McCaffery and the others said.

The order also runs a sophisticated direct-mail fund-raising campaign out of its U.S. headquarters in Orange and a satellite operation in Hamden.

“Lottery sweepstakes” offering cash prizes of up to $5,000 for a $5 donation for a book of 10 tickets accompany moving pleas for money to train seminarians.

The order, founded in Mexico in 1941, reports it has 350 priests and 2,000 seminarians in 16 countries, double the number of a decade ago. Forty-three of the priests are in the United States. The order’s Mexican-born founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, 76, directs the Legionaries from headquarters in Rome.

The Legionaries are esteemed in Rome. Pope John Paul II presided at the ordination of 60 new priests of the order in 1991 and praised Maciel for loyalty to the papacy. Maciel accompanied the pope on two of his trips to the United States.

The Legionaries of Christ offer the following open letter we believe can be helpful for people who come across the November 3, 2000, edition of the National Catholic Reporter.

October 31, 2000
An open letter from the Legionaries of Christ
Dear friends, Christ’s peace.

The tabloid-style cover story of the November 3 National Catholic Reporter is an attack on the Legionaries of Christ and the schools affiliated or associated with us. We want the public to know the background behind this attack so that if you hear it discussed you can respond with the truth.

It is a long and very biased article that touches on a number of issues. First, let us provide you some background that can put it in perspective.

A reliable reporter?

The reporter writing the story, Gerald Renner, retired from the Hartford Courant in April 2000. While writing for the Courant Mr. Renner wrote several attacks on the Archbishop of Hartford and on the Legionaries.

In one article Mr. Renner alleged that the Legionaries seminary was run like a boot camp; he told the harrowing tale of two men who supposedly had to escape in secret in order to leave. One of these men wrote to the Legion and the Courant to say how ridiculous and insulting he found the article. The other, who was 31 at the time, remained in contact on good terms with the Legion after he left. Other ex-seminarians have told us they were contacted by Mr. Renner but as soon as they had something positive to say of the Legion the interview was ended. None of them were ever quoted or referred to in Mr. Renner’s articles.

Mr. Renner told us he was hired by the National Catholic Reporter in late August to do a story on Legionary schools. His editor at the National Catholic Reporter told us Mr. Renner submitted his story for publication on Wednesday, October 25, but the editor found the story included no comment from any Legionaries and no comment from any of the vast majority of supportive families involved in our schools. Fr. Owen Kearns LC called the editor to ask for fair treatment; some of Fr. Owen’s comments are quoted in the story. Mr. Renner then contacted a Legionary spokesman, Jay Dunlap, Communications Director, on Thursday October 26, scant hours before going to press. Asked if he would interview supportive families, Mr. Renner said he would have to speak with them within the hour because he was facing a deadline. This after two months of working on the story but contacting the Legionaries only as an after-thought. Hardly professional. Mr. Renner’s editor conducted the interviews with the supportive parents, adding their quotes at the last minute.

In the article Mr. Renner repeatedly refers to the Legionaries as “secretive.” How ironic that a reporter who did not approach the Legionaries’ national offices for comment until after he had submitted his story for publication should accuse the Legionaries of being secretive. We regret that the National Catholic Reporter published Mr. Renner’s story with a screaming front-page headline in spite of its glaring omissions and distortion of the facts.

The story

The story primarily involves a situation at The Donnellan School in Atlanta. This school was started a few years ago as an independent Catholic school. Its founders soon sought affiliation with a religious order to safeguard its future. In June of 1999 the Archbishop of Atlanta announced in a letter to all Donnellan families that he was delighted the Legionaries accepted the offer to affiliate with the school.

In mid-September 2000, four administrators and staff members of The Donnellan School lost their jobs. While the Legionaries and the school are unable to comment on the personnel issues involved because of privacy and legal concerns, it is significant that, as stated by Mr. Renner, the National Catholic Reporter was contacted to do a negative story in August — weeks before anyone lost a job.

Many of the families and faculty members who left have since started a new school called Atlanta Academy, a “nondenominational Christian school.” News reports about the Donnellan situation have revealed that many of these families viewed Donnellan and the Legion as “too Catholic.” While we regret that they have left the school, it is their right not to share the Legionaries vision for Catholic education nor the explicit, published mission of The Donnellan School.

There has been much misinformation passed around about the affiliation process and the Legionaries of Christ. An unfortunate number of families have fallen prey to this misinformation, which is rehashed in the National Catholic Reporter’s anti-Legionary story. Some of the details are simply fictitious. For instance, Mr. Renner cites unattributed third-hand hearsay that The Donnellan School’s first principal left because she learned of a pending Legionary affiliation. That is absolutely impossible because the Legionary affiliation was not even considered until after she announced she would leave.

Hostile Takeover??

The overriding problem with the story is that its very premise is flawed. It argues that the Legionaries make a practice of taking over schools that others have worked to start. The fact is that Donnellan is a rarity among Legionary affiliates precisely because nearly all schools connected with us incorporate the Legionary philosophy of education from the very beginning. Most of these schools start with the hope that as they grow and as the Legionaries ordain more priests, with the permission from ecclesiastical authorities they will eventually have a full-time Legionary presence, as is gradually happening. Mr. Renner learned these facts only after he had written his story, and so he was unable to completely rewrite his story and meet his approaching deadline. It is apparent, however, that Mr. Renner was not as interested in the truth as in advancing his anti-Legionary agenda.

Moreover, please note that The Donnellan School went looking for a religious order with which to affiliate and chose the Legionaries over other good possibilities. There was no takeover. The Legionaries were invited in with the consent of the Archbishop.

Donnellan was started as an independent Catholic school by a pastor, Monsignor Edward Dillon, with the help of lay friends. After the school had been in existence for a few years, Monsignor Dillon, The Donnellan School Board of Trustees, and Archbishop John Donoghue of Atlanta sought a religious order to ensure the Catholic character and academic excellence of the school well into the future. They were pleased that the Legionaries accepted the opportunity. Archbishop Donoghue announced the affiliation in a letter to all Donnellan parents in June of 1999, when the affiliation first happened.

Old-fashioned and Militaristic

Mr. Renner’s caricature of the Legionaries suggests that they are regimented and militaristic, a throwback to the pre-Vatican II Church. He describes Regnum Christi members, the lay people who share the Legionaries enterprising spirituality, as submissive robots willing to leap at any Legionary’s call.

The fact is the Legionaries call to form lay apostles who help build the Church is recognized as one of the prophetic new movements in the Church that foretold Vatican II’s call for a more active laity. Fr. Maciel, founder of the Legionaries and Regnum Christi, developed his vision for lay-clergy collaboration two decades before the Council convened. Pope John Paul II has recognized Regnum Christi as one of the new movements that are a sign of the new springtime of evangelisation foretold by the Second Vatican Council.

Mr. Renner accurately describes the Legionaries and Regnum Christi as militant but completely misconstrues the ancient meaning of the term as it applies to Christians. The Church militant describes the people of God fulfilling the command to make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19). The weapon is charity in all things. Mr. Renner completely distorts the meaning of the Legionaries’ commitment to charity by making it sound as if it´s merely a tool for muting dissent. In fact charity is a profound challenge that Christ presents to all of us, and the Legionaries strive to practice it even in the face of unjust attacks.

Another disturbing part of the article is Mr. Renner’s assertion that the Legionaries break up families by holding separate retreats for men and women and recruiting teenage boys to attend a special school for potential priests. First of all, it is conventional for nearly any weekend-long retreat to be single sex because of sleeping arrangements. More significantly, regarding the apostolic school for boys who may have a priestly vocation: families send their sons to the apostolic school because they see the need in today’s culture for a special environment in which a vocation can grow. These families report that, despite any physical distance, they actually grow closer to their sons through graces shared in prayer and in deeply personal and spiritual letters.

As our parents know from experience, we see our purpose as supporting them in their role as the primary educators and primary teachers of the faith. Anything contrary to good parenting is absolutely contrary to the Legionaries mission in education.

Mr. Renner’s article inaccurately names Oaklawn Academy in Edgerton, Wisconsin, as an apostolic school. The only apostolic school in the United States right now is in New Hampshire.

Academics Versus Piety

The article alleges that academics suffer in Legionary-affiliated schools because there’s too much emphasis on religious practice. Families in our schools know nothing could be further from the truth. Our outstanding scores on standardized tests are proof enough. But our families also know the effect of our positive approach to discipline, which results in very few distractions and far more time for studies.

Obedience to Bishops

Mr. Renner raises the question of obedience to bishops in the context of schools in dioceses where the bishop has not invited in the Legionaries, such as Milwaukee. With the help of National Consultants for Education (NCE), such schools can implement the Legionary philosophy of education without any direct involvement by Legionaries. This arrangement respects the authority of the local bishop and the freedom of lay Catholics to undertake works of service to which they believe they’re called again, very much in the spirit of Vatican II.

The article brings up the case of Royalmont Academy in Cincinnati. Mr. Renner mischaracterizes the history of this school again because of his faulty premise: he does not acknowledge that the Legionary philosophy has been part of the vision of the school since its inception. He also neglects to explain that some families he describes as traditionalist dissociated themselves from the school precisely because Royalmont, like all Legionary affiliated schools, will operate in obedience to the authority of the local bishop. The traditionalists judged the local bishop to be too liberal and so left the school, a fact no one would know from the National Catholic Reporter.

False Accusations against Fr. Maciel

Finally, and most painfully for us Legionaries, the National Catholic Reporter unquestioningly rehashes false and discredited charges that Fr. Maciel, founder of the Legionaries, sexually abused men decades ago. This attack is especially shocking for families and understandably so, since it is the most sensational. It was also written by Mr Renner and first appeared in February 1997 in the Hartford Courant, Mr. Renner’s employer until last April. Then as now, the writer wilfully ignores essential facts that discredit the accusers story. The men Mr. Renner quoted (1) claimed to hold Legionary positions they never held in apostolates that never existed, (2) actively attempted to recruit others to join in the lie, (3) changed their stories after being confronted with certain facts, and (4) had a decades-old history of trying to discredit Fr. Maciel with attacks found to be patently false by independent investigators. One of the accusers publicly recanted and admitted that allegations had been invented out of spite toward Fr. Maciel. Some accusations were printed despite the Legionaries supplying Mr. Renner with documented medical evidence to the contrary. The Courant told the Legionaries they thought their series of reports on Fr. Maciel would win journalism awards; they did not. They could not, since journalism is supposed to respect and report on the truth. Even so, the National Catholic Reporter reissues these discredited allegations with no mention of the evidence against them.

Growing pains

Every birth involves labor pains and so it is with developing new schools. Every new school struggles through obstacles. We as Legionaries don’t claim perfection: in helping establish a number of new, independent Catholic schools across the country, we have faced problems brought on by all the normal human frailties. We are grateful to all the families who sacrifice so much to join us in the mission of Catholic education. Please join us in prayer for all our school communities, and, if you would, remember us Legionaries and our schools in your prayers as we face the current ordeal.

Gerald Renner’s Response to an Open Letter That Appears on the Legion of Christ Web Site
The National Catholic Reporter/December 11, 2000
By Gerald Renner

“An open letter from the Legionaries of Christ” on the organization’s Web site 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’s 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’m 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 called “Nuestro 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 as “chaplain” 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: déjà 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 would “need 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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s