Sheila’s Story, Part IX
This is one of a thirty part exposé on the Children of the Legion. This group of women, then girls, in the Regnum Christi, share their stories of abuse, neglect and the aftermath of being children in the Regnum Christi. For a complete list of stories to date, view Children of the Legion.
I arrived at college as avid an RC member as ever. My roommate was RC also, and we intended to support each other. That was tested right away, as we found out that our college had banned Regnum Christi from campus and would not allow Legionary priests on campus either. (At the time this was very puzzling to me. Who could possibly object to RC, especially on our nearest RC center was hours away. And worst of all, when we called the consecrated there and asked if they would be willing to come to our area ever, they told us, “Start a team yourselves. When you have a flourishing team, we’ll come do a retreat for them. But it’s not worth it to come out for just you two. Don’t ask us to do anything for you — ask what you can do to start RC on your campus.”
That was yet another nail in the coffin for me. Ever since I’d arrived home, I’d been discovering more and more that all that about being “special” or “extra valuable” was a lie. My value was determined by what I had already done, without help. I had expected to be given some training or guidance before being given an apostolic responsibility, but that never happened. Instead I would be told “Start a girls’ club” or “Start an RC team.”
My roommate and I batted the idea around of starting a team, but both of us are a little shy, we were new on campus, and we didn’t want to make waves. Neither of us “recruited” anyone. So no consecrated ever came.
I spent a little time trying to impress a boy who was rumored to be in Regnum Christi, but it didn’t really work out. He was a nice guy, but not at all sure what he wanted to do with his life, and not actually involved in RC either. Besides, I was too busy hanging out with a guy in whom I was emphatically NOT interested in, but couldn’t seem to stay away from, named John.
I was delighted to find that one of my old classmates had arrived at the same college as I had. That brought the total of former precandidates I knew up to two (another I had run into at a retreat, and we emailed from time to time). We talked a bit about our experiences, but weren’t really sure what else to say except “Those were the good old days.” My email buddy kept telling me I should join this website called “Face Book” where I might be able to get in touch more of us. I put it off for over a year, though. I was just busy having a good time at college.
A “good time” in my dictionary meant studying hard, waking up at six to do my prayer commitments, going to bed at 10 p.m., and being friends equally with everyone. “Particular friendships” are bad, right? By my second year of college, I had slacked off on my prayer commitments (shoving them in in the bare minimum of time right before bed), was staying up till midnight, and decided that particular friendships were a good thing after all. My attempts to befriend an entire college class, even at a small college like mine, just wore me out and left me feeling that I had no real friends. I didn’t need any for myself, but it upset me to find out long after the fact that this or that “friend” of mine had been going through a hard time, and I hadn’t been there for her because I was too busy with one of my other fifty friends. I really only had two friends still — this lanky, sarcastic guy I couldn’t stop hanging out with, and my roommate. So in sophomore year I chose a group of friends I got along with well and stopped trying to keep up with everyone. It worked better.
John was kind of the opposite of everything I’d ever been taught in Regnum Christi. The cardinal rule, don’t say negative things, didn’t even matter to him. He freely criticized everyone he wanted — the college administration, bishops, his friends. His criticism was always true and often very well-reasoned, so I couldn’t exactly argue. But it made me uncomfortable. I was also uncomfortable with his traditionalist views. He went to the Latin Mass, and I was sure there must be something wrong with that.
Meanwhile, he was rather edgy about my involvement with Regnum Christi. For a long time he didn’t bring it up, but finally he asked me about it. He told me he was suspicious of them because of a bad experience a family friend had had at a Legionary school. I listened to the story, and all I could say was, “I’m sure it wasn’t that bad, someone must have misinterpreted something.” Because obviously the Legionaries never lied. Still, it made me uncomfortable, because the story (which I’m not sharing here because it’s not my story) did seem kind of credible, and John was quite sure of the facts of it. I just shrugged it off.
Another year went by, as I reached my junior year. I went to Rome, saw the Pope, and learned a lot. But I was getting tired of being in Regnum Christi. It offered me nothing, while I had nothing to give it. My prayer commitments were the only thing left, and I found them exhausting. It wasn’t a lot — 15 minutes of meditation, a daily rosary, and a couple of brief prayers. But I had gone through the whole Gospel in my meditations at least twice, and found myself coming up dry when it came to finding something to pray about. And I couldn’t pray with others, despite the many opportunities to pray in the Rome program. RC teaches very specific forms of prayer, down to a special way of saying the Rosary, so that my prayer commitments weren’t fulfilled by what my classmates were doing together. I could do both, but didn’t have the energy, so I would bow out and pray alone. And that was just depressing. I longed to leave, but felt I had the duty to stay because I had made a promise.
When I came back from Rome and spent Christmas at home, I went on my required yearly RC retreat. It was balm to my soul, being around all these nice girls. But it didn’t do away with my doubts. In spiritual direction, I confided to the consecrated, whom I’d never met before, that I wished I had never incorporated. She told me to spend a year praying about it, which I agreed to do. But in my heart, I already had one foot out the door. Regnum Christi just felt like a millstone around my neck at that point — though I still believed it was great for other people. It just didn’t feel right for me. I didn’t talk with others about it much. If my boarding school experiences ever came up, I’d just say, “It was great, strict, but made me who I am today. The vocation just wasn’t for me, I guess.” As time went on, I felt very thankful that I hadn’t gotten consecrated, because I could clearly see how much happier I was outside of that environment. But I was sure the “kind of hard time I had there” was just because it wasn’t for me, and that everyone else had been happy.
The only person I told about my decision right away was my roommate. Though she was still happy in Regnum Christi, she didn’t judge me at all. She was happy for me and we stayed as good friends as ever. This was a huge relief, because it seemed to me RC people kept to themselves a lot. (And all my other RC friends pretty much dropped me once I stopped showing up to retreats. But it wasn’t a big deal to me because we hadn’t been close.)
During my year of discernment, a news story came out that Pope Benedict, almost immediately after taking office, had disciplined Fr. Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries and Regnum Christi. There had been accusations of misconduct, but there wouldn’t be an inquiry because of his advanced age. He was asked to retire from public life and live a life of prayer and penance.
The accusations weren’t a surprise to me. I had been told many times that Maciel had been accused of “horrible things” by “jealous people.” He’d been kicked out of seminary more than once, and only managed to be ordained because his uncle was a bishop. (Jealous bishops who didn’t like him standing out by his extraordinary sanctity.) And he’d been suspended from leadership in the 50’s (a time we called the Great Blessing) while the Legion was investigated. (Those jealous people strike again.) Nothing bad was discovered at all — the saintly seminarians virtuously didn’t let a negative word about Maciel pass their lips, and they snuck out of the city to have spiritual direction with him in secret. (Why did this not give me red flags?!) Maciel had been accused of breaking every one of the ten commandments (said with a little laugh). Surely if the accusers had wanted to be even remotely credible, they wouldn’t have made such extreme claims. If he had done all those bad things (not specified, because we were tender plants and shouldn’t hear such scandalous slander), surely someone, in all those years, would have noticed.
John, who had been silent on the matter of Regnum Christi since our conversation over a year before, pointed the article out to me. “Oh, I knew there had been accusations,” I said. “And it doesn’t say he’s guilty.” John pointed out that this was Pope Benedict — who had been head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for years. He was a smart guy. He knew what was what in the Vatican. And he wouldn’t make this sort of move lightly. There had to be at least a credible accusation for him to do something like this.
I admitted that he was right. There must be some new information Benedict had that I didn’t. My next visit home was coming up, and I had a Regnum Christ retreat planned. Surely the whole thing would be explained to everyone’s satisfaction.
There was definitely an anxious atmosphere in the air as we waited for the consecrated to explain everything. But all they did was tell us the press release the Legionary leadership had published: “Facing the accusations made against him, he declared his innocence and, following the example of Jesus Christ, decided not to defend himself in any way. . . . Fr. Maciel, with the spirit of obedience to the Church that has always characterized him, he has accepted this communique with faith, complete serenity and tranquility of conscience, knowing that it is a new cross that God, the Father of Mercy, has allowed him to suffer and that will obtain many graces for the Legion of Christ and the Regnum Christi Movement.”
I was flabbergasted. Weren’t we owed at least an explanation? The whole rest of the talk was dedicated to how we would deal with this new “persecution” and how hard it was to have to hear our beloved founder slandered. There were hints that John Paul II would never have done something like this, and that while we respect the Pope as Pope, we don’t have to agree with everything he does. Someone must have been influencing him, so that he didn’t know the whole story.
The whole thing looked to me like a load of BS. Pope Benedict, back when he was just Cardinal Ratzinger, knew everything that was going on in the Vatican. And word on the street was that he had planned this for a long time. There had to be an explanation of some kind. But Maciel wasn’t giving one. I felt that we were owed an explanation. Not defending himself was a cop-out. With thousands of followers looking to him, he owed us more than that. I didn’t think he was guilty. But I had to admit that his response sounded guilty. It didn’t sound right. In my mind, I began to consider that he might actually have done something wrong.
I caught my spiritual director immediately after the talk. “Can we talk — even for five minutes?” I asked. “No,” she said right away, “I just came for this talk and have to leave right away.” Disappointed, I turned away, but I was still close enough to hear someone else approach her. “Do you have a minute?” this other woman asked. “Sure, come over here,” the consecrated woman answered.
I felt that sinking feeling again. Yet again, I was getting the impression that I wasn’t of any value to these people. They had ranked me as a second-class RC member and I wasn’t worth their time. Especially now, when I’d already talked about leaving … they assumed I was already out the door and there was no point talking to me anymore.
Which, by that point, there wasn’t. I was out of there. I stopped doing my RC prayer commitments right after that. At the end of the year, I called my spiritual director and told her I was leaving RC. She said that she was happy for me, and that RC wasn’t for everyone. The call lasted ten minutes, and I hung up with a feeling of great relief. I was supposed to write a letter to the general director, but I didn’t bother. I didn’t feel I had to ask permission of anyone anymore. I was free.
It was only a few months after this that Maciel died. I didn’t really care much about that; he wasn’t “my” founder anymore. But I soon heard the news that, after his death, his illegitimate children came forward and the Legion was forced to confess that their founder had lived a double life. He had mistresses, several children, and luxurious houses and apartments. When he would randomly not show up where he was expected, or go on long “fundraising trips” by himself … he was visiting them.
No one was admitting yet to the pedophilia accusations, or the accusations of drug addiction. But at that point most people acknowledged that these were probably true too. If he was a liar of that degree, why not? At this point I guess the Legion has admitted to those charges too, and has apologized to the victims for the decades of slander and attempts to discredit them.
Regnum Christi members around the world were shocked, scandalized, horrified. They met together to try to sort out what had happened to them; how they were led to regard this man as a living saint, only to be betrayed by him. But I only felt a huge sense of relief. I was right, I thought. I did the right thing.
This story is a testimony from the 49 Weeks Blog. You can see this and more stories by visiting 49 Weeks.