Nat Russo – Psychological Abuse in the Legion

An autobiography of my time in the Legion


By Nat Russo


I hope others will be able to read this, perhaps young men who are considering entering the Legion, or other people who are considering getting involved in Regnum Christi. Maybe this will indicate to them that even if they do not believe any sexual abuse is taking place in the Legion, that there is no doubting the psychological abuse that takes place.

My story takes place over the years 1990-1993. During that time, however, I was only a Legionary from 1990 – 1991, although my status as a Legionary was also questionable, as you will soon find out.

The abuse that I suffered at the hands of the Legionaries of Christ was not sexual in nature. It was psychological in nature, and very real. The short time that I spent within the Legion had a profound impact on my life that I still feel to this day.

Just a quick back-history: I graduated from High School in Arizona in 1988 and entered Aeronautical Engineering school. After 2 years of engineering school, I could no longer deny that my true path should go in the direction of discerning whether or not I had a vocation to the priesthood.

The Infancy of my Vocation

I started pursuing this goal with the religious order who ran the local parish I had been involved with since I was a small child. The Claretian Ministry Fathers. They brought me and a friend to their provincial house in the Los Angeles area for several days. But, it soon became common knowledge that I had outstanding student loans from my days in engineering school. The order could not help me, and could certainly not accept me with student loans. So, they told me that if I truly felt called to be a Claretian, that I would find a way to pay off those loans and then return to them at some future date.

To put things in perspective, I was 20 years old at the time. The highest paying job I had ever held up until that time was a job working as a cook at Pizza Hut, for slightly over $3 per hour. The thought of having to pay off $25k worth of student loans on a paycheck like that seemed downright ludicrous to me. I immediately began examining my options. I had not felt called specifically to the Claretians. I merely began there, as they had been my parish priests for as long as I could remember. I knew many of them personally, as they routinely transferred in and out of my parish every couple of years.

I applied for the Diocese of Phoenix and began the long tortuous process of proving myself to them. For those who are not familiar with the process used by that diocese, let me just say it is grueling. You begin by writing a complete autobiography of yourself (mine was some 40-50 pages in length). Then, if you pass that phase, you begin a series of psychological tests. If you pass through that phase, you then appear before the diocesan vocation council. This council represents a cross-section of the diocese, and includes priests, religious, and laypersons. For 1-2 hours they rapid-fire questions at you regarding your beliefs and what sort of person you are. Many questions that arise are based on your own autobiography, but most others deal with where you stand as a Catholic.

There was a hiccup in my past, so to speak. In high school I dated a girl whom I believed to be a devout Catholic. There was only one parish in my town, but she and her family did not attend my parish. They, instead, met at the house of a local retired priest who celebrated the Tridentine Rite. They asked me if I had ever seen a Tridentine mass before, and I answered honestly No, I have not. So they asked me to attend. In fact, it became a condition of me dating this girl (imposed by her family). At first, I thought it was a little odd that we were celebrating mass in this priest’s house. But, I was a very naive 20 year old boy. I knew (as much as I could know) that the mass was a valid one, and that was all I was concerned with. So I continued attending this mass for the 2 years that I dated this girl (it happened to be the two years from 1988 – 1990).

The diocesan vocation director read about this in my autobiography and dropped a bomb on me: Son, do you realize that for 2 years you had effectively excommunicated yourself? I was dumbfounded, and that is an understatement. The vocation director informed me that this group of people belong to a renegade sect of fallen-away Catholics known asSedevacantists (I’m sure everyone here is familiar with that term. For completeness’ sake, Sedevacantists believe that the See of Peter is currently vacant, and has been since the death of Pope Pius XII). Needless to say, this was not going to go in my favor. In fact, it was quite the contrary.

The diocesan vocation director said I’m sorry, son. I cannot recommend you yet. But all you have to do is return home, get active in your parish for a while, re-establish your relationship with the true Church, then reapply next year. I reluctantly agreed, but it wasn’t as if there was any real choice in the matter. After all, a Catholic’s place is in a church that is under the authority of the local Bishop and the Pope, not a church that denies it.

I, however, was not going to be dissuaded from my quest to enter the seminary. I began contacting numerous religious orders that I believed had charisms that fit with my own personal spirituality. Every time they discovered my student loans, however, they flat out refused to consider me further. They all said get a job and pay off those loans, then call us again. What more could I do? I was prepared to just get involved in an active ministry at home and be a good Catholic for the next year.

I Am Lead to the Legionaries of Christ and Cheshire, Connecticut

That is when a close friend of mine told me she had a potential answer for me. This friend happened to be my CCD instructor back when I was in the 9th grade. Since that time we had developed a wonderful friendship. In fact, she and I became part of a core group of individuals who ultimately attempted to bring a youth program called the Life Teenmovement to our parish (we were ultimately unsuccessful at this endeavor, but we did succeed in lighting a torch that was passed on to others who, ultimately, were successful where we had failed). She approached me one day and said I sent in a vocation card for you to a relatively new religious order. They seem to be very young men, and you might fit in with them. They are called the Legionaries of Christ, and they are based in Cheshire, Connecticut. I thanked her, and completely forgot about it. After all, I myself had sent in countless vocation cards, and, predictably, fielded countless phone calls from vocation directors. So many, in fact, that I had gotten in the habit of announcing Oh, hello Fr.! This is he! I should tell you right now that I have $25k in outstanding student loans that I can’t pay off by myself. That tended to end the conversation really fast.

One day my phone rings. I answer the phone, and on the other end is a man who introduces himself as Fr. Edward Hopkins. So I go through my (now) typical introduction. Only this time the response is COMPLETELY different: Well, do you think you might be interested in the Legionaries of Christ? So I politely asked him if he had heard what I said about my student loan situation. He replied While it’s not my place to say yes or no to something like that, I don’t see it as a road block. More of a speed bump. I tell you what, why don’t you come out here to Cheshire. We’re going through a Candidacy program right now, and you can check it out for a couple weeks and see how you like it!So I said That sounds wonderful, Fr., but I don’t think I could possibly afford a plane ticket to make the trip. He said Let me get some more information and I’ll call you back. And that was the end of our first conversation.

No more than 20 minutes later the phone rings again, and once again it is Fr. Edward Hopkins. He says I have some great news. One of our benefactors has agreed to purchase a plane ticket for you. I know it’s too late today, but can you leave tomorrow? I said Well, Fr., I live at home with my parents, I should speak to them first and see if I have their OK to leave for a couple weeks. His response was I understand. It would be better if you can give me a yes right now, though, so that I can call our benefactor and arrange the ticket. Reluctantly, I said yes, as I did not want to pass on this opportunity. My parents thought it a little abrupt, and they cautioned me about moving ahead too quickly without proper time for reflection. But ultimately they knew how important the idea of my vocation was to me, so they gave me their blessing. The next day I was on a plane to New York.

This was the first time I had ever been away from home on a trip of this magnitude*by myself. I had taken class trips and the like, but there were always chaperones nearby that I knew I could rely on in an emergency. This time I was by myself, and in hindsight I was more than a little scared of the idea. What if I missed my connection flight? What if I got to the airport in New York and couldn’t find my shuttle bus to Connecticut? What if I got to Connecticut and couldn’t get in touch with Fr. Edward? Etc. All questions that would reasonably go through a person’s mind in my position, I think.

The flight was uneventful, as most flights are, thank God. Contrary to my belief that I would completely mess up the travel arrangements, I found my shuttle bus and was ultimately let off at a bus station somewhere in Connecticut (I’m trying to remember back now…was it Hartford?). Whichever city the bus took me too, I know it was approximately a half hour or twenty-minute drive from the house in Cheshire to the bus station. I called the house, but they could not find Fr. Edward. I told them he was expecting me, and that I was at the bus station waiting for him. They said they would get the message to him. Let me frame this picture for you all: This was about a half hour after I got off the bus. I had expected to be met at the bus station by *someone*, but no one was there. I was alone in a different place, without my family, or without an adult who cared about me close by, for the first time in my life. And a half hour after getting off the bus, I was still alone in this bus station with all these strangers. It was now some time in the mid-late afternoon, as I recall it.

Where Oh Where is the Legion?

An hour later I was still waiting. I called the house one more time. This time it appeared to be a different person that answered. I told them the situation, and that Fr. Edward was expecting me. They said I’m sorry, but Fr. Edward was pulled into an important meeting. He knows you are there, and has asked that you wait a little while longer. He will be along shortly. Well, what could I do but wait? It’s not like I had any options open to me.

Three more hours passed. It was now late evening, and I still had eaten nothing since I left my parents house earlier that morning. There was still no one there to pick me up. In hindsight it is perfectly clear why there was no one to pick me up. In hindsight I know that in the Legion there is no such thing as individual human dignity. Your value is calculated on how much you can further the goals of the Legion, and nothing more. I had potential at this point in time, but certainly no actual value to them. Once again, though, I was a naive young man. I gave Fr. Edward the benefit of the doubt, because that’s what you give a priest (in my mind at the time). I was certain that whatever it was must have been greatly important for him to leave a person waiting at a bus station for more than 5 hours.

I called the house again and left another message. I can’t even remember, at this point, exactly how long I had been waiting. They told me finally that someone was on the way to get me. So I waited patiently. About 45 minutes to an hour later, I saw two priests enter the bus station. I approached them and found out they were Legionaries and were there to pick me up. They introduced themselves as Brothers, and that cleared up my question as to whether or not they were priests.

We made it back to Cheshire, and they showed me to where I would be staying. I asked if it was possible to get something to eat, and they looked at me like it was an odd request. But they assured me they’d check on it. They sat me down in a dining room and said Fr. Edward will be here shortly. Well, I was a little skeptical at this point, since it seemed like I had been hearing that all day long. But, true to their word, Fr. Edward did show up very quickly at that point.

After making our introductions, Fr. Edward said they were checking the kitchen to see if there was something for me to eat. A few minutes later, a couple of young men in cassocks rolled a portable table out into the room, and Fr. Edward told me to help myself. He asked me politely about my trip, and I told him about the plane ride. General small talk. Then he began telling me about a wonderful soccer game he had played today, in the afternoon, and the wonderful conversations it generated during dinner a little earlier in the evening.

I was flabbergasted. While I was freaking out in a dirty bus station, wondering why out of hundreds of people they couldn’t send just ONE to pick me up and get me settled in somewhere, he was apparently out enjoying himself in a wonderful soccer game with his friends. It sounded like a tiring exercise. But apparently that too was remedied by a wonderful dinner later in the day…while I was starving in a bus station, wondering if I’d have to call my parents for some advice on what to do.

So after a little conversation, Fr. Edward takes me back to where my sleeping quarters are. I notice that now there are about 20 or 30 other young men already bedded down. It was a large common sleeping area. I unpacked some sleeping clothes and went to bed.

The Silent People

The next morning, someone entered the common room and shouted something at the top of their lungs. What was more disturbing was the fact that everyone around me responded in unison. No problem, I thought to myself. I’ll learn. And learn I did. Funny thing is that even now I can’t recall much of the minutiae of my day there. But I do remember the highlights. I remember getting up out of bed and trying to introduce myself to the guys. They all looked at me like I was from outer space. And NONE of them would respond to me! I thought I was in the Twilight Zone! I finally approached another brother gently tapped him on the shoulder, and asked him what I was supposed to do. His eyes grew wide, and then he looked down at the ground and slowly shook his head. I noticed everyone else grabbing towels, so I grabbed a towel and followed everyone to the showers.

We went through our morning routine (which I seem to recall also entailed morning prayer…now did we take showers before or after morning prayer? I can’t recall, but I think it was before.) We attended mass. I saw Fr. Edward sitting in with the congregation and I had a thought: Hmm…isn’t this odd Why isn’t he concelebrating? Shouldn’t he be concelebrating if he’s present and able? I only had that thought because that was the tradition I had grown up with in a church run by Claretians. In that church, if a priest was present…he was working.

We were ushered into the dining area, and we all stood around the table. No one said a word. A few moments later, a priest entered the room, said Christ our King! to which everyone replied Thy kingdom come! . At that moment, it was as if someone had flipped a switch. All of a sudden, people were all smiles, sitting down, grabbing food, talking to one another, and introducing themselves to me. All in all, I found they were a great bunch of guys.

There was a problem, though. After breakfast I was approached by a brother. He asked me, politely, to not wear black pants, white shirt, and black tie. He said You’re not quite one of them yet, so we want to avoid any impropriety. I had no idea how wearing black pants, white shirt, and black tie was a step towards impropriety, but I wanted to fit in, so I obliged.

The rest of my two weeks in Cheshire was filled with prayer, sports, trips around the countryside, and one or two people that I will remember for quite some time. Why? I remember them because they took the time to get to know me. The others all seemed likegetting to know me was NOT appropriate, and should not be encouraged. Most of my relationships there were superficial at best, precisely because of this. But, there are 3brothers (at the time, candidates) who immediately come to mind. Two come to mind for befriending me and being generally likeable people, and one comes to mind because he continuously forced me to exercise my Christian sense of Charity. I will call him Brother X as he will appear later in the story as well.

I Meet Fr. Anthony Bannon and Get Sent to Wisconsin

One day, a Legionary brother approached me, and said Fr. Anthony would like to speak with you. He’s waiting in his office. I’ll show you to him. So I followed the brother and was shown in to Fr. Anthony’s office. I recognized him immediately, because his picture was all over the Order’s advertisements in various vocational magazines. Somewhat awed that the actual provincial would be asking to see me, I sat in the chair I was pointed towards and began to speak with Fr. Anthony.

I found him to be a nice and apparently caring person. I feel compelled to say that he was the first person in the many religious orders I looked into that actually appeared to care about me as a person. More importantly, he cared about my vocation. In hindsight, I have a little more insight into why this was the case. But at the time, I took things at face value. We spent several minutes in small talk, and some conversation about my initial impression of the Legion. Ultimately, he asked me, point blank, How much do you owe on your student loans? Without hesitation I responded 25 thousand dollars, Fr. Anthony.

He leaned back in his chair, paused only for a brief moment, then said If I were to hire you for a year, and pay you a sum of 25 thousand dollars, your loans would be paid off within the year, and you could return to Candidacy next summer. Would you be interested in doing this?

I was astonished. At that time in my life, his offer seemed like the life raft I so desperately needed. I was extremely grateful, and I accepted his offer without hesitation. He was going to send me to Oaklawn Academy, in Edgerton, Wisconsin. It seems their Karate instructor had recently quit, and they desperately needed a replacement. Since I was a black belt in Tang Soo Do, I seemed the logical candidate for the position, given my financial predicament. In addition to teaching Karate, I was also to teach basic mathematics to the 5th graders.

I returned to my parent?s home in Arizona and prepared for the trip to Wisconsin. No more than week after I arrived in Arizona, I was packing up my modest amount of possessions into my car, and driving across country. I had a contact at Oaklawn. Fr. Martin was his name. I had a brief conversation with him prior to leaving for Oaklawn, but it was nothing more than an introduction. I asked him what I should bring with me, but he seemed uncertain as to what to tell me. In fact, it seemed my actual status as a Legionary was uncertain. Frankly, it sounded like they didn?t know what to make of me. Placing my faith in God, I made the trip to Wisconsin and hoped for the best. The trip took me 3 days, driving more than 12 hours each day.

I made my way to Oaklawn Academy and pulled into the long driveway. My first impression was this place is really beautiful! Acres upon Acres of green grass, peppered here and there by oak trees, and accentuated by a lake at one side of the property. It struck me immediately as a truly peaceful place. I stopped my car at what appeared to be the entrance to the Academy, and went inside.

Father Martin Or Brother Martin

It was early mid August, as I recall, about a week or two prior to the students arriving for the fall school session. So the place was pretty dead, actually. The only people in residence, in fact, were the Legionaries who lived there. It took me a while to actually find someone, but I ultimately ran into Fr. Martin. After another brief introduction I told him that my belongings were in my car, and I needed to be shown to my room.

He responded You brought a car? I said Yes, I could not afford to fly here, so I drove my car. Is that a problem? His response was I don?t know. Then he dropped the subject and showed me to the residence. It was at that point I learned there was a separation between two communities that lived there: the Legionaries (which apparently I was a part of), and the prefects who were essentially the disciplinary staff. Now this latter group also consisted of Legionary brothers (both of whom I grew quite fond of while I was there), but since they were Religious, they stayed in the Legionary residence on the same floor as the large Chapel (which is larger than some parish churches I?ve visited, I should say. It was truly a pretty chapel.)

I was pleased to find that another Candidate from Cheshire would be working and living there at Oaklawn as well. In fact, he was one of the Candidates whom I had begun to be friends with, so this eased my worries and homesickness a little bit. If nothing else, there would be a familiar face. My first week there was an eye opener. I immediately began to live the daily routine, and in the beginning I found this to be quite a spiritual renewal for me personally.

It was at this point that I noticed something that I found to be quite odd. Fr. Martin assisted at daily mass. But it was quite clear to me that he was no Fr. In fact, he was a deacon. This confused me greatly. It confused me so much so, in fact, that I approached our superior, Fr. T. M., about it. He shrugged off the question by saying Oh, that?s simply a Legionary tradition. When a man is ordained to the transitional deaconate, he earns the right to be called Father by the rest of us. But what did I know of the rules? This man had been a priest for years, so surely he must know what is and is not appropriate, right? I deferred to his judgment, and called Fr. Martin Father from that moment on.

Another candidate arrived at Oaklawn and we became friends very quickly. I remember that he had a degree in philosophy, and he would engage me in conversations that were mostly over my head, but truly interesting nevertheless. So far over my head, in fact, that sometimes it was even a chore to recognize that what he was saying was spoken in English! I?ve subsequently achieved a B.A. in Philosophy. I?d LOVE to go back and take another shot at those conversations now!

The Trip That Was Not To Be

Neither of us had been this far away from home before, and we were quite excited that we now lived only 2 short hours away from Chicago. The big city, with all that implied! So my newfound friend and I began planning a trip to Chicago. The trip was to take place a scant 2 days later. On the day of our planned trip, at breakfast, I mentioned, once again, at the breakfast table that we were both excited to be taking a drive down to the city, to visit various museums, and maybe even the Sears Tower. I noticed people raising their eyebrows, but I interpreted it as more experienced and older men finding it amusing that two newbies were so excited about seeing a city. Either that or they were tired of hearing about it over the last couple of days, since I had been talking about it openly. Our superior, Fr. T., ate breakfast in silence and didn?t say anything to us. As I began clearing my table place, and started walking out of the dining room, I noticed that Fr. T. called Fr. Martin over to his side, and whispered something in his ear.

I walked down the hall, heading back to pick up my car keys with my friend, when Fr. Martin came running up behind us. He stopped me and said Did you clear this trip through Fr. T.? I responded I didn?t realize I needed to. We don?t have any work today, and it?s the last free day before the students arrive, so I thought it would be a good chance to get out and see the city.

Fr. Martin said you can?t do that. You can?t leave the premises without Fr. T.?s permission. This was not the answer I wanted to hear. I am a very independent person, which may have been a deciding factor in my ultimately leaving the Legion, so any leash placed on my freedom that I believed to be arbitrary was not going to be met with cheer and good will. My friend, on the other hand, was decidedly against doing anything to anger Fr. T. We gave in quickly, and did not take our trip. I have to admit I was more than a little depressed about this. I had really been looking forward to it, and Fr. T. had more than enough opportunity to tell me two days prior, rather than waiting until we were actually walking out the door to go.

Sometime between this event and the start of school, Fr. Martin approached me to discuss my pay and what form it would take. He was in charge of the financial dealings of Oaklawn Academy, and was assisted by an RC member named Rene. Fr. Martin said You can receive a paycheck, if you want. But I would recommend you just let us track your salary in a separate account, and allow us to pay your loans directly. You will have access to the account, so you can always come to us to withdraw money if you need it. I was naive enough to listen to him, and I opted to let the Legion track my salary and pay my loans directly. So, every two weeks my salary would be deposited into this account, and Fr. Martin would draw a check to send to one of my creditors.

Life at Oaklawn Academy

One day, while I was walking towards the gymnasium, I was approached by one of my friends from my short two-week stay in Cheshire. He said Hey! Did you hear the news? Brother X is going to be joining us this year! He didn?t enter the novitiate! My heart sank a little bit. I had already suspected that this might be a difficult year, but for completely different reasons. Adding a person to the mix whom I simply didn?t get along with was NOT going to make things any easier. I resolved to immediately start praying about it, that the Lord would give me the grace to not only heal a dysfunctional relationship with this person I?d have to live and work with, but perhaps to even become friends with this person. From that moment on, I included a short prayer to this effect in all my daily prayers. The interesting thing is that after Brother X arrived at Oaklawn, I found my own opinion about him changing. This taught me an invaluable lesson about relationships that are challenging: always pray about them.

The children arrived and we were beginning our first week of school. The kids really brought a light to that place that hadn?t existed during the couple of weeks that I was there in their absence. It was the first time I remember the halls being filled with laughter, at times.

This was when the 2nd bombshell was dropped on me: I was to spend the first 6 weeks of the semester teaching English to the 5th graders. I spoke no Spanish, and these 5th graders spoke little to no English. Yet after 6 weeks I was supposed to coach them into being fluent in English. I had no certificate to teach English! I had no certificate to teach Math, for that matter! But at least I was experienced enough in Math to be able to teach a lower level of it. So there were no Karate classes and no math classes for the first 6 weeks. Just English.

My first week teaching ended, and the second quickly began. It was during this week that something else was forced upon me that I found very strange. Let me set the scene a little bit first: My entire day was spent around the children. And while I loved them very much, an adult also needs the companionship of other adults, if for no other reason than intellectual stimulation. So I had taken it upon myself to eat lunch in the teacher?s lounge, where I got to know my fellow teachers. These teachers were all laypersons, and I believe none or few of them knew much about the Legionaries of Christ (that was the impression they gave). They were just plain people going to work every day and doing their jobs (very fine jobs too, I might add. They were incredible people.) This lunch hour was a period of time that I really looked forward to. Because during this hour I could speak to people who I felt truly had some depth of experience! I learned about their children and their spouses, their interests and hobbies, etc. And during this time I could also share a little about myself (since the Legion didn?t seem interested in me on that level).

No Contact With Outside World Allowed

One day I was approached by Fr. T. directly. He said I noticed you?re not eating lunch with the children. I must tell you that you shouldn?t be spending your lunch hour with the other teachers. They are outsiders and they won?t really understand you very well. But the real problem is that they may discuss things in there that you should not hear. They might talk about their sex lives, or other aspects of their social lives, and you shouldn?t hear those things. I want you to eat with the children from now on. Don?t tell the other teachers about this, just stop eating in the teacher?s lounge tomorrow.

This request, as small as it seemed, crushed me. I had spent the last two weeks building friendships with these people, and it seemed horrible to just not show up one day, and keep on not showing up! So I did what any reasonable person would do (any reasonable person who cared about others, that is): I marched straight up to the teacher?s lounge during my next lunch hour, and told all of them that I would no longer be joining them for lunch, and exactly why I wouldn?t be joining them. They were shocked, to say the least. I remember one teacher in particular who was known for being quite a character, shook his head as if to say I saw this coming and actually muttered the word typical. At the time I wasn?t sure exactly how to take this. But my hind sight is now 20/20, as they say. I would find over the course of the next 6 months that this was, in fact, very much typical behavior.

I complied with the request, because at the time I really could see no other option available to me. So I began eating lunch with the children. This, of course, had the effect I was expecting: I began to be (and feel) further alienated from the rest of the professional staff that were supposed to be my colleagues. This problem was more acute in my case since I was a complete amateur when it came to teaching academic subjects. While it is true that I was a certified martial arts instructor, that requires a vastly different teaching style than teaching English, or Math, etc. Now that my one and only method of socializing with the other teachers was taken away, I could no longer get the professional advice that I so sorely needed. So once more I felt like a tree branch floating along a mighty river with no power to control where it goes or comes from. All I could do was go along with the current, and hope there would be no waterfalls in my future.

I stumbled along, doing the best I could to teach the chapters listed in my teacher?s version of the student?s English textbooks. When I think back to that time, I shudder at the thought of how much money those children?s families were paying the Legion for a good education, when what they got was me and not a certified teacher. Not once did the Legion actually ask me for a copy of my college transcripts to verify the education I claimed to have. Nor did they ever do a background check on me to make sure I was the sort of person who should be around children. Fortunately for the legion, and for those children, I did not lie about my education or moral character.

It didn’t take long for me to learn that there was a disciplinary force at Oaklawn Academy. This group of individuals consisted primarily of laymen (some younger than I), and Legionary brothers. There was one man in particular that comes to mind. He was older than I was, but I cannot be certain by how much. He was a layman who also claimed to have a history in the martial arts. He is noteworthy in my memory because I immediately knew that this person was a bully. I could see it in his walk, in how he interacted with the children (who feared him greatly, as I later found out in numerous conversations with the children), and finally by how he interacted with me. Every conversation we had made me feel as if I was back in Junior High School. This was a man who was in charge of maintaining discipline among the students, but whenever he interacted with me he kept pushing me into agreeing to spar with him in my karate class, as if he needed to prove (or demonstrate) his manhood. I never agreed to a match with him, because I felt it was for all the wrong reasons. My martial arts training was never about proving I was a man. It was about my love of the particular martial art I was studying. My refusal to accept his challenge never stopped him from routinely visiting my karate classes under the pretext of making sure the students were behaving properly. I knew the visits were a pretext because he was far more interested in what I was doing, then in what the students were doing.

I?d like to interject here that the two Legionary brothers who were on this disciplinary force were well-loved by the children. And I knew them personally to be very kind and caring individuals.

The Real Clone Wars

My 3rd or 4th week there revealed yet another bombshell that they were going to drop on me: my hair style was considered inappropriate for a potential legionary. My ancestry is Italian, and for many years I simply combed my hair straight back. That?s just the way my hair was. I was not trying to make a statement, or be trendy, etc. It just worked that way. My hair was not long by any means. In fact, I routinely had it cut above my ears. However, my superior was extremely upset that I did not part my hair on one side. He told me this does not present an image that we are trying to show the world. That was when, for the very first time, I took a good look around. I noticed that all the legionary brothers looked alike in that they all parted their hair the same way! I asked Fr. Thomas about this and he explained a little further: As followers of Nuestro Padre, and co-founders of the Legion, we all try to do little things just like Nuestro Padre. We dress the same, groom ourselves the same, and defer to him in all ways. It?s what Nuestro Padre would want from each of his legionaries. I asked him what an African brother would do, and Fr. T. told me he would do his best to emulate Nuestro Padre.

It didn’t stop there. I also wore a mustache. It was neatly trimmed, but it was still facial hair. I was informed that this too was highly unacceptable and reflected poorly on me. I immediately called to mind that our Lord Jesus Christ had a lot more facial hair than I did, and I don?t recall it ever getting in the way of His mission.

When I returned to my room later in the day, I noticed a bottle of hair gel, and a new razor on my sink. I never used hair gel before, and actually didn?t even know what to do with it. So I did what a good Legionary would do: I looked at a photo of Fr. Maciel and did my best to part my hair the same way. I also shaved my mustache off. The result was somewhat comical, but I seemed to be the only person to notice. Or perhaps everyone was just charitable and didn?t say anything. The important thing, though, is that I stood there, gazing into the mirror, and I didn?t even recognize myself. Looking back I can see why this was necessary: You could not be an individual in the Legion. You were nothing more than a clone of your fellow legionaries, at best. A person with individuality has a level of independence that I believe the legion is not comfortable with. I later saw Fr. Thomas in the dining room and he exclaimed Ahh! You look much better now! I strongly disagreed, but I kept marching forward and didn?t say anything about it.

Legionary Priests Cannot Own Possessions?

We sat down for dinner and enjoyed the usual dinner conversation. I was fascinated by Fr. T.’s experiences in the various missions, and his life in Ireland, etc. So I always tried to sit as close to him as I could in order to engage him in conversation. This night was no different than any other. Fr. T. was in the habit of drinking tea with dinner. I learned, much to my surprise, that he had brought his own teapot with him. This struck me as odd, since the only possession a Legionary was supposed to have was a breviary. Nevertheless, this teapot traveled with Fr. T. wherever he went. When it came time for him to pour his cup of tea, his expression and demeanor completely changed. He became nothing short of angry. He stood up from the table and exclaimed I TOLD those women not to wash this teapot! They’re ruining it! He stormed out of the dining room into the kitchen area, where we were able to hear him berating the ladies that worked in the kitchen for several minutes, going on and on about the proper care of a teapot. When Fr. T. returned to the dinner table, in a slightly better mood I might add, he gave us a brief lecture on how dish detergent can ruin a teapot and cause any tea brewed in that pot to taste funny. It still left me wondering how that could be so important that he’d be willing to verbally abuse two completely innocent ladies who were well-intentioned and wanted to make sure everything was clean.

All Communications Monitored/Controlled

Life continued at Oaklawn Academy, and I accompanied the students on numerous outings around the Wisconsin countryside. I found myself feeling more and more stifled, however, by never being permitted to leave the premises. Something else was beginning to bother me: I was not receiving letters or phone calls from my family. This was the first time I had ever been away from the family for an extended period of time. It would have been highly irregular for my parents to not be attempting to contact me, especially since I had not called them in so long. So I approached Fr. T. about this problem.

He did not know what to tell me about the mail: Maybe your parents just aren?t sending you any letters Regardless, it?s best if you just take this time away from them to begin living the Religious life. Constant contact with your family could detract from that, and hurt your vocation. You have to protect your vocation. He was very incredulous about my desire to contact my parents, as if it were one of the most foolish things he had heard recently. I managed to force the issue, however, and he allowed me to use the phones that were reserved for the children. But my conversations were timed, and they could only take place once every 2 weeks. I have since found out, some 15 years later, that my closest friend at the time never received a single one of the letters I had written to him. They have probably either been destroyed, or are sitting in a room somewhere collecting dust.

The restrictions were quickly starting to get to me. I began acting out by leaving the property at night, after dinner, and driving my car up to Madison, Wisconsin, for no other reason than to take a walk through a shopping mall, or go see a movie. I just needed to get out of that environment for a short time, even if for only an hour or two. I was always back in plenty of time to make it to evening prayer and adoration.

Privacy is not a Right

One of the many psychological games they would play with us, as legionaries, would be to periodically enter our cells (our sleeping quarters), and blatantly rearrange items, or leave signs of someone else?s presence in plain sight. The message they were sending was simple: your life is not your own, and you will never be able to hide anything from us, so don?t even try.

Once every month or perhaps two months, we would be required to move. This entailed entering our cell, collecting our belongings, and moving to a newly designated cell. We were timed in this activity. Failure to complete the move in the proper amount of time would bring down the wrath of our superior. Personally, I was never able to complete the moves in the designated period of time, because when I moved in to Oaklawn Academy, I brought with me several pieces of furniture, among other possessions. Needless to say, I was routinely in trouble for this offense.

Legionary Custom Violates Canon Law

This was around the time I began noticing something else that was odd: Fr. T. was not only our superior. He was also our confessor and spiritual director. During spiritual direction, he routinely brought up issues that I had discussed with him under the seal of the confessional. I have to admit, this was unsettling. Yes, it is true that he was speaking about those issues with me, but is it appropriate for a priest to bring up matters of the confessional with his congregation outside of the actual confessional? I found this to be highly irregular. Furthermore, as my superior, I couldn?t help but wonder if some of his decisions about me were colored by his knowledge of what I confessed to him. I wasn?t even aware of the applicable Canons when this was happening to me, but even then as a naive seminarian this struck me as a conflict of interest at best.

You’re Only a Legionary When They Need You

Time continued passing us by and I began taking an interest in assisting at the altar. After all, I was a seminarian, I believed that I was headed for the priesthood, and I would have liked to take a place at the altar. Each time I asked if I could assist at the altar, I was toldI?m sorry you can?t assist. You are not a Legionary yet. No matter how insignificant the role, they would not allow me to participate because I was not a legionary.

I found quickly that this not a legionary rule did not apply to manual labor, however. Whenever hay was delivered for our stables, it was I and the other candidates who were tapped on the shoulder to carry the hay bails from the delivery truck into the storage barn. We weren?t even given gloves to do this, resulting in cuts and deep scratches along the entire length of our arms. My arms hurt so much after a typical hay session that I couldn?t even touch them. When I appeared to be complaining about this to Fr. T., I was told You are a legionary. You are learning sacrifice.

So for liturgical purposes (the purposes for which I believed I was actually there), I wasnot a legionary. But when it came to manual labor that the community needed done…You are a legionary. And this was to be a recurring theme throughout my stay in the Legion. Whenever the Legion needed me, I was told You are a legionary. But whenever I needed the Legion, I was told I?m sorry, you?re not a legionary.

Preparing for Rome and My Christmas Salary Bonus

Around the month of October, I was approached by Fr. T. He asked me if I would like to accompany them to Rome over the Christmas holiday. It is a tradition of Oaklawn Academy that over the Christmas break, the children, accompanied by chaperones, are taken to Rome where they attend Midnight Mass at the Vatican, as well as other activities. I had never even been to Wisconsin before, much less Rome, so I saw this as an amazing opportunity! They made it very clear, however, that I would have to pay for this trip out of my salary. The Legion would not pay my way or cover my expenses once in Rome. I asked for an estimate of the cost, and found it agreeable at around $1600.

After I agreed to travel to Rome with them, I was approached by the principal of the school. I only recall his name as being Eduardo. Eduardo came up to me after class one day and informed me that I, along with the other teachers, would be receiving a Christmas bonus of $1000 for jobs well done. This was wonderful news! That bonus money would serve to offset most of my cost for the trip to Rome!

I looked forward to the trip to Rome as a pilgrimage of sorts. I was becoming increasingly unhappy in the Legion, and really needed to get things sorted out if I were to continue pursuing what I believed to be my vocation. The flight to Rome was an extremely turbulent one. Looking back, that could be taken as a metaphor for my life up until that point. We landed in Rome much later than anticipated due to various delays due to technical problems. So we had little time to prepare for Midnight Mass or even to begin getting over the jet lag. We rushed to our hotel, after clearing Customs, ate a quick dinner, and then prepared for the bus trip to St. Peter?s.

When In Rome

The first time I set foot in St. Peter’s basilica, I openly wept. Never before in my life had I seen something so beautiful, and never again have I seen a man-made structure as exquisite and full of holiness. When I entered the basilica I was completely overwhelmed, not only by the sheer majesty of the place, but by the omnipresence of God Himself. God, of course, is everywhere. But when I entered the basilica it was as if He touched me and said You are in a Holy Place.

The following two weeks were spent in prayer and reflection. I took it upon myself to separate from the group. They had many activities planned that did not center on Church or Catholicism, and I wasn?t interested in participating. For example, one of the things the children had come to Rome for was to compete in a soccer tournament. I preferred to spend most of my time around the Vatican, praying in St. Peters, and just generally absorbing the place as much as I could.

Regnum Christi’s Idea of Charity and Mercy

Within a day or two of being there I began to get pretty sick, along with some other people. I ran a very high temperature, among other problems that were extremely debilitating. One day, in fact, I had to spend entirely in bed in the hotel. Their idea of medical care, however, was to send another pre-candidate to my room with some aspirin. I took the aspirin, but of course this didn’t have much of an effect on my condition. I couldn’t sleep due to the jet lag, and the sickness was keeping me awake during the time my body felt sleep was normal.

The following morning I heard a voice gently attempting to wake me. This was the voice of Rene, the resident RC member. He said Christ our King, trying to make me realize that it was time for morning prayer. I was utterly exhausted, and covered in sweat from my high fever. I had been up through most of the night, very ill, and had finally fallen asleep and felt as if I was getting some well-needed rest. I made a half-hearted attempt to climb out of bed, but I just couldn’t. I found myself drifting off to sleep once again. I don’t know how much time passed, as I was sleeping, but I was awoken by another Christ our King, this time a little louder, with a slightly agitated edge to his voice. It startled me and I sat up too quickly, getting dizzy in the process. I said Rene, leave me alone! I’m very sick right now! I could feel the nausea building once more, and I just needed to lie down.

What happened next is something that had never happened to me before, and has never happened since: a large volume of ice cold water hit me square in the face as I was lying on my bed. Rene had taken it upon himself to fill one of the cups in the hotel bathroom with icy cold water. He then walked over to where I was sleeping and poured it over my head. He was saying something to me as I shot out of the bed and ran for a towel, but to this day I do not recall what he was saying to me. I don’t recall ever being so angry before. I got the towels, dried myself off, and did my best to dry my bed and pillow.

Taking new towels and laying them down on the bed, I said some words to Rene that were to the effect of If you try that again, you’ll be very sorry. Now leave me alone. I don’t recall the exact words, but at that point in my life it is doubtful they would have been much stronger than that. I returned to sleep. I should say I attempted to return to sleep, but found it difficult with Rene standing over me, berating me for not attending morning prayer. He finally got tired of me ignoring him, picked up his breviary, sat on the edge of his bed, and attended to morning prayer by himself.

I Take Discernment Into My Own Hands

I finally recovered from the sickness, a day or two later, and was feeling close to 100% healthy. I did my best to avoid the group, unless there was a planned trip where we all needed to stay together (e.g. a day trip to Assisi or the fountains at Tivoli, etc.) Other than those infrequent trips, the bulk of my time was spent on my own, touring all of the holy places that I could find. One of the more touching moments was when I discovered the Scala Sancta (the Holy Steps). These are the steps said to be the very steps that Christ ascended in the house of Pontius Pilate during His trial. They were moved to Rome by St. Helena in 325 A.D., and were covered with wooden boards for preservation. Pilgrims can climb this staircase, but only on their knees. I took it upon myself to do so. It was an amazing experience. I lost count of the number of times I was able to see the Holy Father during this period of time in Rome. He seemed to be an ever-present force in Rome during the Christmas Holidays. I was blessed with many such wonderful experiences during my two weeks in Rome.

My Brief Encounter with Fr. Maciel

I actually had the opportunity to see Fr. Maciel during that time. One of the celebrations we were going to attend was the 50th anniversary of the Legion of Christ. This mass was celebrated at St. Paul Outside the Walls, a beautiful church. The mass progressed much as any other mass. Many of us, I suppose due to our low rank within the order, were kept at the very back of the church. In hindsight, however, this allowed me to see something very interesting at the end of the mass. Rather than greet fellow legionaries, or perhaps even stop ever-so-briefly to nod and perhaps shake hands with a small group of pre-candidates, Fr. Maciel was instead whisked away almost like a celebrity running away from paparazzi. At the time I attributed this to him being a very busy man, but I must say even then I was beginning to see through the veil they had systematically placed in front of our eyes.

My Personal Discernment Begins Guiding Me Away From Legion

Throughout the remainder of my stay in Rome, one thing was becoming painfully clear to me: I did not have a calling to be a Legionary. By the time I stepped onto the plane to return to the United States, I was certain of this. There was no longer any doubt in my mind. Upon returning to Oaklawn Academy, during the early part of January, I made my intention to leave known to Fr. Thomas. His reaction surprised me a little bit. He did all but call me a traitor, and suggested that I was left with a choice between God and myself, and he suggested that I was clearly choosing myself. He said that I had a calling to be aco founder of the order, and that should be more important than any other consideration. The strange thing is that the discernment process that I went through in Rome seemed, to me at least, to be the only actual discernment that I was able to do while in the Legion. Prior to that trip, everything was simply assumed. It was assumed that I would go back to the candidacy. It was assumed that I would be a novice. It was assumed that I would profess vows. It was assumed that I would be ordained. Etc. Where was the discernment in that if your superiors were already assuming what your choice would be?

I listened to everything he had to say, and it confirmed my decision for me. I had to leave the Legion, and I had to leave right away. I felt, inside, as if I could not spend another moment in that place. Everything in my being was seeking a way to escape that life that had become a prison of sorts. Without permission I went to the phones and attempted to call my parents to let them know what I was going to do. The phones, however, were deactivated, much to my dismay. So, I jumped in my car and drove into town to find a pay phone. One collect call later, my parents knew I was going to be coming home shortly.

The Missing Money And Legion Sense Of Charity

I had an immediate problem that needed to be overcome: I had no money on me to make the trip back to Arizona, so I needed to approach Rene (Fr. Martin had since been reassigned, since he was just ordained while we were in Rome). According to my math, there should have been a positive balance in my account of over $700. I was soon to find out this was not the case.

I approached Rene and told him of my decision to leave. He was not surprised. Clearly someone had already told him of this. He asked How can I help you?? I replied I need to withdraw the rest of my pay from my account so that I can cover my trip back home.Without even checking the records, he replied immediately but you have no money coming to you. In fact, you owe us somewhere around $300. I scratched out some quick calculations on paper, which clearly demonstrated I should have around $700 coming to me, and showed those calculations to Rene. I said Can you please point out where these calculations are wrong?

He looked over the paper and very quickly pointed to the line item that listed my $1000 Christmas Bonus. He said This is where you are miscalculating. You have no $1000 bonus. I asked What are you talking about! I was told explicitly that I had a bonus coming to me! Rene replied Well, you DID have a bonus, but when you informed us that you were leaving, we decided to take the bonus back from you. After all, it?s not right that you receive a bonus if you?re not going to stay for the rest of the year.

I was dumbfounded. The bonus had already been granted to me for a job well done prior to Christmas. Had I NOT listened to Fr. Martin, and actually decided to receive a paycheck that I could cash, I would have received that bonus in my hand in the form of a check. Instead, I was learning that the trust I placed in the Legion to manage my finances was NOT placed in the right hands. They clearly deserved no trust. My account was supposed to be sacrosanct. But clearly it was not, because the Legion was now dipping into that account and punishing me for leaving the order.

I approached Fr. T. and explained the situation to him. His response was It?s not right for you to receive a bonus if you?re not going to stay here. I told him this is like giving someone a paycheck for work already performed, then taking it away from them when they quit. His only response was to repeat what he had said previously.

I said Father, I have to drive 3 days across country. I?m penniless right now. I was counting on that money that I believed to be rightfully mine. I need that money to pay for fuel, hotels, food, not to mention have something with me if I should run into an emergency. He said You can always stay here another month and earn enough money to get yourself back home. Who knows, you may even change your mind in that time and decide to stay permanently. That was not an option. And it was becoming less and less of an option with every word he said.

Stay Silent!

Fr. T. continued: You should not tell the children you are leaving. It will only confuse them and possibly cause a scandal. If you are going to leave, just leave. Don?t tell anyone you are going.

I was clearly no longer a legionary at this point, not in my mind or theirs. So as far as I was concerned, this request did not apply to me. The very first thing I did, the following day, was tell all of my classes that I was leaving the Academy. These were young children, 5th graders, who had come to genuinely look up to me. I had affected many of these children positively, and in many cases was one of the few positive things in their life at the Academy. Not telling them I was leaving would have been a betrayal of those children. It would have done NOTHING to avoid scandal, and in fact it would have created mystery and unanswered questions in their mind. So I told them. Now none of them are wondering why their 5th grade teacher, whom they came to love and respect, suddenly disappeared.

I was never able to convince the Legion that taking my Christmas bonus away was unethical. But neither did I stay there another month. I began packing my things into my car and preparing for the long trip home. At this point there was nothing I could do but pray that everything would work out for the best. I made my rounds through the house, also against Fr. T.?s wishes, to tell everyone that I was leaving. Fr. T. didn?t even so much as freely offer to keep me in his prayers. I had to request that of him.

Charity Takes an Odd Form

I eventually came upon Brother X in his room. He was sorry to hear that I was leaving, and he wanted me to have a book that he liked in particular. He said he had bookmarked a page for me, and that when I was getting ready to stop on my first day on the road, I should take a look at it.

I packed up and set off in what was one of the worst snow storms I had ever been through. This trip, in and of itself, could fill all the pages I?ve written about my stay in the Legion. I eventually made it out of Wisconsin, and several hours later pulled in to a motel parking lot. I opened the book that Brother X had given to me, and turned to the page he had bookmarked. Nestled in-between the pages was enough money to pay for my hotel room, with enough left over for food. Amazing how in the beginning our relationship was so challenging, but in the end he was the only one that took the time to help in a way that really mattered.


Since that time I was able to pursue my vocation in another venue. I re-applied for the Diocese of Phoenix, and after several months, I was finally called by the vocation director and formally accepted as a seminarian for the diocese. They sent me to St. Meinrad seminary later that year. I remained at St. Meinrad for 2 years, leaving in 1993. I have to say that my experience at St. Meinrad was everything I had hoped my seminary experience to be. Yes there were some bumps here and there, including activities on the part of seminarians and teachers alike that any Catholic would consider inappropriate, but true discernment took place at St. Meinrad. We were treated like thinking, feeling human beings there. One interesting contrast between St. Meinrad and the Legion: In the Legion, if we were to even consider leaving, we were told we were choosing between God and Ourselves. In St. Meinrad, however, they told us the truth: Please do not think you are choosing between God and the secular life. You are here to decide whether or not you can live as a priest. If you cannot, you are not choosing ?against God?. You are simply discovering that God has another plan for you. Living the ?priesthood? is not a way of life that is superior to that of the layperson. It is simply a different expression of our faith in God, and a calling to a different way of life.

In 1993, as I mentioned above, I left the seminary entirely. It had become clear to me that I had a vocation to the married life. Several months after leaving the seminary I began dating the lady who is now my wife. I am now a software engineer, a husband, a father of a 5-year old son, and a relatively well-adjusted adult (as well-adjusted as any of us can be, I suppose).

Legionary life had a far greater impact on me than sometimes I give it credit for. It was both painful and joyful, both happy and sad, both freeing and stifling. The bottom line, in my opinion, is that there appears to be a system of institutionalized psychological abuse in the legion. Until the legion is forced to address these issues, they cannot possibly be doing a true service to the Church or God. You do not create a good priest by destroying that man?s past, and severing his ties from his family. What sort of organization that calls themselves Religious could possibly do such a thing in the name of righteousness? The notion is absurd.

I remain a devout Catholic to this day. Many people ask me how I can do so in the face of not only the rampant sexual abuse scandals, but in the face of my own experiences inside the Church. My answer is a simple, yet honest one: I remain a devout Catholic because my faith is not in the priests, bishops, cardinals, pope, religious orders etc. My faith is not in the trappings of Catholicism. My faith is in the rich theology of the Church, and the Church?s foundation in Christ. Quite simply, my faith is in Jesus Himself. Jesus warned us that much evil would happen before His return. But He gave us a guarantee for our Church that rings true even more so today than when He first uttered the words: and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.

The Legion did get something correct: Christ is, in fact, our King. And His Kingdom will, in fact, come.


2 thoughts on “Nat Russo – Psychological Abuse in the Legion”

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  2. I, a former teacher at Oaklawn, remember Nat as wonderful person. Oaklawn regularly opened mail and monitored phone calls of students and brothers. The American flag occasionally flew over Oaklawn, but Maciel controlled everything.

    The was no financial accountability to anyone except the Legion. Students deserved much better.

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