Are there Abuses of Human Rights in the Legion of Christ?
By J. Paul Lennon, LPC, M.Div.
Presented at ICSA International Conference
Silver Spring, MD Sat July 5th, 2014
What is the Legion of Christ?
The Legion of Christ is a bone fide Catholic religious order approved by the Vatican and composed of about 800 priests, 2,500 seminarians, and 60,000 lay members. It reached the pinnacle of its prestige and power during the reign of Pope John Paul II. So not like it is some unknown, far-removed, weird, esoteric group. Together with other cult sensitive individuals and organizations the author has contended for years that the Legion of Christ possesses several harmful cult-like features. In this paper the author wants to show that this organization acknowledges violating some basic human rights of its recruits, trainees and members.
Marcial Maciel (March 10, 1920 – January 30, 2008) was a Mexican-born Roman Catholic priest who founded the Legion of Christ in 1941 and the Regnum Christi movement some time later.
In 2006 Pope Benedict XVI removed Maciel from active ministry based on the results of an investigation concerning sexual impropriety. Maciel was ordered to spend the rest of his days in prayer and penance. In 2009, shortly after his death, he was revealed to have abused boys and maintained relationships with at least two women, fathering several children, two of whom he allegedly abused as well.
On March 25, 2010, a communiqué on the Legion’s website acknowledged as factual “reprehensible actions” by Maciel, including sexual abuse of minor seminarians.
The Legion of Christ finished a period of “renewal”, an Extraordinary General Chapter, January 8 -February 25, 2014, under the guidance of Papal Delegate, Cardinal Velasio De Paolis. As a result of this process the Legion reviewed its constitutions which were then forwarded to Pope Francis for his approval; the Legion also published a series of documents for members and the public outlining flaws found in various areas of their system. It behooves us to study those official statements, especially any that acknowledge how the organization came up short respecting human rights. The present article may later be of help when examining the new constitutions -if and when they are released to the general public- from the point of view of human rights.
Difficulties inherent in this study
In attempting to examine human rights in the religious order (congregation) of the Legion of Christ we face a twofold challenge. On the one hand basic human rights described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights , see Appendix I, and the Council of Europe Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms appear prima facie too general for the present study. On the other, when we approach a narrower “charter” such as Catholic Canon Law as it legislates for religious institutes and members , it seems to bypass human rights. And when we Google human rights and “religious” we get references to freedom to the exercise of religious beliefs. Where to find a list/description of human rights as they refer to the “religious life”? Or, do “consecrated religious”, men and women who have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience still preserve certain inalienable human rights that they can never forfeit? Benjamin Zablocki’s A Proposed Bill of Rights for Intentional Communities seems to have solved our dilemma.
The writer strongly encourages people involved with the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi to study Zablocki’s Ten Inalienable Rights. They strike uncanny chords of recognition and Eureka moments. They can awaken in us a clear vision of “something is not right!” or “that was wrong!” (See main points in Appendix II)
However, how to prove that the Legion of Christ is an “intentional community”?
Faced with these cul-de-sacs we will pursue another tack. Could it be that the Legion of Christ has acknowledged some of its practices were/are wrong based on natural ethics and the common practice of the Catholic Church? From here it could be inferred that abuse or neglect of fundamental human rights has occurred. And as we examine the “deficiencies” described we revisit the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Catholic Canon Law (CIC) we discover that these may be useful yardsticks after all.
Legion of Christ Chapter Acknowledges Deficiencies Reflecting Abuses of Fundamental Human Rights
Recently, the Catholic News Agency (CNA) published an article about the Legionaries of Christ acknowledging deficiencies following their three years of reflection and the conclusion of their Extraordinary General Chapter (LCEGC). The author is indebted to that report and to REGAIN editor, Peter Kingsland, who, based on the CNA report, pinpointed a number of questionable LC practices . As the author examined the series of official Legion statements more carefully he found that some statements could be construed as contraventions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Catholic Canon Law (CIC ). In the comments that follow, a human right will be followed by the corresponding Legion admission of deficiency; where feasible we will include a citation from the Code of Canon Law.
The Chapter’s most important product is the draft of the constitutions which the Chapter sent to the Holy See for review and approval.
The Chapter also published a series of communiqués addressing a number of the issues that have been on the minds and hearts of many Legionaries, Regnum Christi members, friends and family members and others who have followed the developments of the past few years.
Here is a list of the documents.
- Presentation letter for the communiqués of the General Chapter (abbreviated by author, PL)
- Charismatic identity of the Legion of Christ (CI)
- The Legion of Christ in Regnum Christi (LC/RC)
- Fraternal life in community (FL)
- Liturgical life and prayer (LL)
- The formation of the Legionary and the Ratio Institutionis (FL)
- Our apostolic renewal (AR)
- Government, authority and obedience (GAO)
- Administration and vow of poverty (A&P)
- Statement of the Extraordinary General Chapter of the Legionaries of Christ about the path of renewal that we are traveling (PR)
- Some reflections regarding the name of the congregation (NC)
1. Legionaries forfeited their basic equality as human beings in subservience to their founder.
UDHR, Art. 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights .
LCEGC: Legion practiced abdication of one’s personal dignity and equality; Legion admits adulation of the Founder/Leader;
CNA’s Jean Boudet reports how the LC Chapter fathers admitted Legionaries often gave “undue, universal value to Fr. Maciel’s directives and clung too much to them because of an inadequate understanding of the concept of founder and an excessive exaltation and uncritical way of considering his person.”
This mea culpa still minimizes the adulation given to the founder who had himself called Nuestro Padre (“Our dear father”) and Mon Père, terms of devotion, endearment and subservience; he was held in high honor, his every wish and whim being catered to. Such superiority flies in the face of all men being equal and equally deserving. Fr. Maciel’s authority was absolute and all encompassing. Members behaved in unethical ways to satisfy his desires, caprices and vices; clearly a feature of a “high demand” group . Members considered themselves inferior to their guru: the founder was a despotic leader who frequently humiliated others and walked over them and their basic human rights.
2. Legionaries renounced the right to reason, opine, judge and decide.
UDHR, Article 1: (All human beings)…are endowed with reason ,
UDHR, Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
LCECG: Legion practiced denial of the individual’s reason, opinion, judgment and decisions:
Boudet continues: Under the previously approved Constitutions, Legionaries had as novices in training “submitted to trials especially those that demand the renunciation of their own judgment and will”; interpreted their religious vow of obedience as a “total surrender of judgment and will”; and additionally vowed never to criticize a superior and to inform on those that did.
The Chapter Fathers stated…thanks to the suppression of one of our two private vows [by Pope Benedict in 2007] and the numerous community meetings for the revision of the constitutional text, we are learning how to share reflections and suggestions with our brothers and freely debate about any issue that affects the life and mission of the Congregation. In the future, “superiors… should be patient, humble, and sincerely open when [their subjects] express disagreements or criticisms, even if in an inadequate manner, trusting instead in their good intentions.”
The kind of obedience formulated by LC founder, Fr. Maciel, and described in early versions of the constitutions used by Legionaries was “prompt, blind, happy and heroic” , demanding the total surrender of mind and will. Fr. Maciel borrowed generously from the constitutions of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Former soldier, St Ignatius, had legislated that the “subject must be as docile as a corpse” before his superior. When the Legion entered the USA the revealing and problematic term “blind” was changed to “motivated.” It was part of the Legion Spirit and Mystique never to question the actions, personality or orders of their superiors and to “anticipate their wishes and demands”. So it was since the beginning, 1941, and up until the 2013 Chapter. Despite acknowledgement and promises to amend, such doctrine and practice may die hard inside the Legion when Vatican eyes no longer pry; it points toward a feature of so-called “high demand groups”: Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
3. Legion of Christ leaders abused members’ conscience
UDHR, Article 1: (All human beings are endowed with) conscience The Catholic Church teaches: Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a human being. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths
LCEGC: Legion acknowledges interfering with individual conscience, particularly in the Lack of Distinction between (Role of) Superior and Spiritual Director.
Catholic Canon Law: Superiors should not hear the confessions of their subjects unless the members them-selves spontaneously request it. (Can. 630, §§ 1-4)
Boudet: The Chapter also admits to Legionaries not “having ordinarily (Span. ordinariamente) distinguished between superiors and spiritual directors” in their houses of formation. This situation was a serious violation of canon law, which requires careful distinction between internal and external forum and, of course, the confidentiality of the seal of the confessional.
They have newfound respect for the internal forum: “We have sought to implement a clear separation between the ambit of the conscience (spiritual direction and confession), the internal forum, and the external forum (the guidance of the superior and religious discipline) in order better to guarantee the freedom and the confidentiality of each religious.”
The above phrase is from the Chapter document on the path of renewal to be taken and is mentioned here only in the context of the Legion’s “newfound respect.” The Legion fails to state clearly and accept the fact that there were abuses of Canon Law which demands a strict distinction between the “internal forum” (conscience) and the external forum (discipline).” In other words, superiors used information from confession and spiritual direction to control the members’ thoughts, feelings and actions. These abuses, created by the founder, Fr. Maciel, were systemic and an integral part of Legion training/control system up to now. Without outside oversight the corrections cannot be guaranteed: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will monitor the monitors?
The Legion’s penchant for understatement and obfuscation is also demonstrated in the above statement. The abuse described above was not limited to the houses of formation but was widespread in all Legion communities throughout the world. The way this abuse was implemented can illustrate the subtle modus operandi of the Legion: so as to avoid directly contravening Canon Law, confessors “from outside” were occasionally provided to hear the members’ confessions. However, members would be instructed beforehand by their superiors to reveal only general problems to these confessors and to reserve the more personal sins or problems for when they confessed to Legionary confessors (superiors or those LCs designated by the superiors). The Legion systematically intruded and interfered with the members’ conscience, the most sacred part of the human person according to Catholic philosophy, theology and moral teaching.
Canon Law is very clear on this subject:
Superiors should recognize the proper freedom of members concerning the sacrament of penance and the direction of conscience, without prejudice to the discipline of the institute. In accordance with their proper law, superiors should be solicitous to have available worthy confessors for their members so that they may confess frequently. In monasteries of nuns, in houses of formation, and in the larger houses of lay religious there should be ordinary confessors approved by the local Ordinary, chosen in consultation with the community, but with no obligation on anyone’s part of approaching them. Superiors should not hear the confessions of their subjects unless the members them-selves spontaneously request it. (Can. 630, §§ 1-4)
The master of novices likewise may not hear the confessions of the novices or others living in the novitiate unless they ask him on their own initiative. (See can. 985.)
Members of religious institutes should approach their superiors with trust, and they may freely and spontaneously be open with them. However, superiors are forbidden from inducing them in any way to make a manifestation of their conscience to them. (Can. 630, §5)
Under a manifestation of conscience comes all matters of the internal forum, matters such as sins, thoughts, feelings, etc., namely, matters treated in the sacrament of penance, in spiritual direction, and in counselling. These are privileged matters that the member is free to reveal or not reveal to superiors, but superiors are prohibited from using their authority to exact such matters from a subject.
While a member of the Legion of Christ for twenty-three years, my attention was never once drawn to this clear admonition of canon law. The Legion has been dogged by accusations of “violating the seal of confession” since its inception . The above LC “newfound respect” only prolongs the ambiguity and fails to state clearly that superiors should not hear their subjects’ confessions. It also fails to protect the seal of confession by lumping together spiritual direction and confession: spiritual direction is not totally confidential in the same way that confession, the Sacrament of Penance, is. Canon Law’s harshest punishments for priests are for breaking the seal of confession or otherwise abusing this sacred event. Fr. Maciel’s gravest sin, according to Canon Law, was using confession to access his seminarians’ personal secrets and eventually seducing them. The clincher was he committed an even greater sin by absolving “from sin” those he had abused so they would not tell their “sin” to another priest.
Violation of (client) confidentiality is also implied in this acknowledgement. Superiors habitually shared knowledge obtained in spiritual direction –or even confession- with other superiors and used it to “look out for the member’s spiritual wellbeing”: in other words, they would use information obtained confidentially to make decisions about the member’s personal life, e.g. whether to move him to another house, keep him away from a “particular friendship” or punish him for a weakness he had revealed, etc.
4. Legion of Christ pressured young men to join.
UDHR, Article 20 (2): Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment,
UDHR, Article 20 (2): No one may be compelled to belong to an association
LCEGC: Denial of the Individual’s Right to freely pursue his vocation/calling/career; Legion acknowledges, “Inadequate Vocational Discernment”
Boudet continues: The Chapter finds that Legionaries were providing candidates with inadequate vocational discernment and help with responsible and mature decision-making . He also noted how recruiters pressured young people. In the Chapter’s words:
“We have also discovered in some cases a certain overvaluing of the human elements, of prestige and of institutional strength. We have insisted on getting results, putting a lot of pressure on some people. (Author: Superiors putting pressure on recruiters and or recruiters pressuring recruits?)Today, we are seeing a certain rejection of any type of evaluation, even when we all understand the need for it. There has also been a certain “rush” to get immediate results and a desire to grow too quickly. In some cases emphasis was placed on the methods instead of the objective and at times we have treated persons as means to reach an end.”
The Chapter acknowledged that the superiors (formators) lacked knowledge of psychology and guidance: superiors can improve their preparation in some areas: “a deeper knowledge of the spiritual life and of the documents of the Church about religious life, a greater knowledge of psychology in general and especially of affectivity, and the capacity to offer guidance in vocational discernment.”
The Chapter states verbatim: “As regards the formation of our religious, above all we have confirmed the need to improve the accompaniment in vocational discernment so that the novices and religious will mature in their personal decision before God prior to making their religious profession.”
In other words, through ignorance recruiters and superiors pressured young people to enter the Legionaries and take their vows without adequate time and discernment. The reader can sense how both the Chapter and the CNA reporter tend to excuse and play down the Legion’s actions above. Perhaps they fail to realize that such behaviors are typical of “high demand groups”: The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members and often does not care about how much pressure they exert to “get their man” or “make the numbers” as was the case in the Legion. Witness tell us that LC leaders forced recruiters through ambition or shame to “make the monthly quotas” of recruits.
Once more we are referring to a fundamental human right, the right to choose one’s calling, vocation, career, which the Legion has totally overlooked in its obsession with recruiting. By sales pressure the Legion was also precluding choice of a series of alternatives: to marry or to be celibate, to live alone or in community, to be more contemplative or active, to live in this particular community as opposed to another, parish work or group work, at home or abroad; to devote my life to this career or to the other, e.g. teaching, preaching, nursing, medicine, recruiting, fundraising, etc. The Legion systematically overlooked other options in order to recruit the members more easily and quickly.
5. Legion of Christ failed to provide for its sick and elderly
UDHR, Article 25 (1) : Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate …. and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
LCECG: Re Provision for (Consecrated Persons’ Senior Years): The Legion structure has failed to make adequate provision for their elderly and sick members. “The central government was asked to attend to the following tasks: seek to increase the fund for the sustenance of elderly and sick members.”
The above admission needs to be prefaced by the following facts. Video and written testimonies exist of Legionaries being denied medical care and being accused of hypochondria by their superiors when reporting symptoms. Legionaries and members of the Regnum Christi Movement were not enrolled in Social Security or in any bona fide medical insurance services. For decades the Legion has depended on the kindness of friendly doctors to take care of the sick members. On more than one occasion a terminally ill member was returned to their family for appropriate care. The Legion also lacks clear legislation regarding support for those leaving the institute. Up to now financial support has depended on vague guidelines and ultimately on the will of the superiors. There are no material provisions made for those leaving the institute and transitioning back to the lay state. This has given the superiors the power to control the when, where and how a members leaves the group –another cult-like characteristic.
A quick review of statements by the Legion of Christ Extraordinary General Chapter held at the beginning of 2014 reveals that the institution has been “overlooking” the human rights of its members for decades. The abuses have gone undetected, unchallenged and undeterred. This discovery should be a wake-up call for the Legion of Christ and for Church authorities. In Christian terms, the Legion and the Church need deep conversion which must go beyond mea culpas. The sad and frustrating reality is that accountability and redress in this area are hard to implement. Canon Law and church tribunals do not consider the rights of the members of religious orders .
The Legion lives in its own ivory castle within the Vatican fiefdom and without any external independent oversight. More precisely, the Legion is under the authority of the Vatican’s Roman Curia’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life . This dicastery is mostly concerned with “religious discipline” and observance of the rules and has been unreceptive to suggestions of possible cults in the midst of the Catholic Church.
It must be acknowledged that the above “dicastery” did investigate the founder of the Legion of Christ, Fr. Marcial Maciel, from 1956-59 for misconduct (abuses?) and exiled him for a time from the order. However, using his wiles and powerful influences inside the Vatican, Fr. Maciel was able to reinstate himself. Returning to the helm of the Legion he continued unchallenged for another forty-five years until a canon law investigation for absolving his “accomplices in sexual sins” brought him down.
Some sectors of the media, notably investigative reporters Jason Berry and Gerald Renner, Nicole Winfield at AP, REGAIN, INC and some “cult-watch” persons and institutions have been sounding the alarm for decades about abuses in the Legion of Christ. ICSA has chosen to give former members and researchers of the Legion a voice in publications and annual conferences. For this we are deeply grateful.
Ten years ago, at the beginning of the writer’s incursions into the cultic studies field, he was asked to present a paper at an ICSA Conference in Enfield, CT. This proved to be a turning point for him and for ICSA because Legion superiors attempted to prevent the interventions of Juan Jose Vaca, a Maciel victim, and the writer. On that occasion Dr. Michael Langone met with the Legion delegation and presented them with reasonable options to “counteract” the critical presentations. Their strange reactions sent him on a quest to further grasp the nature of the order.
Unfortunately, up to this moment the Vatican has not had ears for accusations against the order for sect-like practices and other abuses. The Legion’s doctrinal orthodoxy, their avowed allegiance to the pope and their infiltration of the Roman Curia keep them above reproach. It does not augur well for the protection of Legion members that Catholic authorities have withdrawn from oversight of the Legion’s inner workings. Papal review of the new constitutions is the only matter pending in the process of Legion “reform” and which could provide moral parameters for the leadership and protection for the members. Very recently the Vatican issued a statement regarding an “Assistant” to assist the Legion as it implements its new constitutions. The statement pointed out that the Assistant is not a Visitator, Commissioner, or Delegate – he has “neither a voice or a vote” but is only a counselor.
Hopefully the points made above prove to be useful and helpful for those in the cultic studies field and especially for prospective LC/RC members and their families. They could prompt members of other mainstream religious organizations to ponder their situation and, if necessary, pose the uncomfortable questions about their group. May they also help in the healing and recovery of survivors: knowing that something objectively unjust was causing one’s discomfort -such as minimization and denial of one’s basic human rights- can be a very healing experience, a life-saving wake-up call and a strong preventive measure.
Simplified Version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Summary of Preamble
The General Assembly recognizes that the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, human rights should be protected by the rule of law, friendly relations between nations must be fostered, the peoples of the UN have affirmed their faith in human rights, the dignity and the worth of the human person, the equal rights of men and women and are determined to promote social progress, better standards of life and larger freedom and have promised to promote human rights and a common understanding of these rights.
A summary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
- Everyone is free and we should all be treated in the same way.
- Everyone is equal despite differences in skin color, sex, religion, language for example.
- Everyone has the right to life and to live in freedom and safety.
- No one has the right to treat you as a slave nor should you make anyone your slave.
- No one has the right to hurt you or to torture you.
- Everyone has the right to be treated equally by the law.
- The law is the same for everyone, it should be applied in the same way to all.
- Everyone has the right to ask for legal help when their rights are not respected.
- No one has the right to imprison you unjustly or expel you from your own country.
- Everyone has the right to a fair and public trial.
- Everyone should be considered innocent until guilt is proved.
- Everyone has the right to ask for help if someone tries to harm you, but no-one can enter your home, open your letters or bother you or your family without a good reason.
- Everyone has the right to travel as they wish.
- Everyone has the right to go to another country and ask for protection if they are being persecuted or are in danger of being persecuted.
- Everyone has the right to belong to a country. No one has the right to prevent you from belonging to another country if you wish to.
- Everyone has the right to marry and have a family.
- Everyone has the right to own property and possessions.
- Everyone has the right to practice and observe all aspects of their own religion and change their religion if they want to.
- Everyone has the right to say what they think and to give and receive information.
- Everyone has the right to take part in meetings and to join associations in a peaceful way.
- Everyone has the right to help choose and take part in the government of their country.
- Everyone has the right to social security and to opportunities to develop their skills.
- Everyone has the right to work for a fair wage in a safe environment and to join a trade union.
- Everyone has the right to rest and leisure.
- Everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living and medical help if they are ill.
- Everyone has the right to go to school.
- Everyone has the right to share in their community’s cultural life.
- Everyone must respect the ‘social order’ that is necessary for all these rights to be available.
- Everyone must respect the rights of others, the community and public property.
- No one has the right to take away any of the rights in this declaration
Ten Inalienable Rights (Benjamin Zablocki)
Excerpts from Zablocki article quoted above:
The following rights are acknowledged to be inalienable. They can never be waived, delegated, or modified, even at the purely voluntary request of the individual.
1. Right to Leave. Any adult person may leave the community at any time without the need to give a reason and without the need for a waiting period. Where the community is geographically isolated, transportation to the nearest town of 20,000+ population must be provided at the community’s expense. Where the community is in a foreign country, transportation to the nearest American consulate or embassy or trade office must be provided instead, if that is the wish of the person leaving. No exception is made to this rule for people in novitiate, retreat, intensive meditation, or any other special status within the community.
2. Right to Maintain Contact with Outside World.
2.a. At least once a year a designated family member from the outside world may meet with any relative living in the community in a neutral location near the community for at least two hours without witnesses to the meeting or electronic surveillance. The designated family member shall be chosen by the family, not the community. If there is conflict within the family, two designated family members may be chosen. Each would then meet with the community member for at least one hour.
2.b. Incoming and outgoing first-class mail shall not be censored. A community member may never waive the right to have mail received unopened and promptly as it is delivered from the post office. If a community member wishes not to receive first-class mail from a certain source, that member shall mark envelope “return to sender” and initial in his or her own hand. This task may never be delegated to another person in the community even by voluntary wish of the community member.
3. Right of Invalids and the Elderly to Continued Support.
4. Right of Children to a Future with Some Degree of Free Choice.
5. Right to an Education.
6. Right to Clearly Defined Health Maintenance Procedures and Open Access to Health Records.
7. Right to Freedom from Sexual or Marital Compulsion.
8. Right to Moderation and Common Sense in the Administration of Discipline.
9. Right to Expect Honesty in Proselytizing.
10. Right to Impartial Investigation of Complaints in order to Verify Compliance.