Safe Religious Communities
By ReGAIN staff
What are the guidelines to use to evaluate whether or not a particular religious group may be considered “safe” in the sense that a leader or groups of leaders do not exploit or take advantage of its own members to serve some hidden agendas?
In the latest issue of ICSA Today, the International Cultic Studies Association has published an article about safe religious communities. http://www.icsahome.com/articles/a-safe-haven-church-an-introduction-to-the-basics-of-a-safe-religious-community
The author, Neil C Damgaard, defines safety (for members of religious communities) as “the practice and sense of security, freedom and respect as one is joined and engaged with a particular social system or a specific group.”
He explains that in healthy religious communities God’s grace flows outward from Him, through His people, to the general community. In unsafe religious groups, instead of grace there exist “control, undue influence, harshness, legalism and other unhealthy maladies.” Such practices damage and injure people even though the groups and their leaders espouse theological orthodoxy. Discernment is required to distinguish between two groups that may appear to have similar beliefs yet one is healthy and the other is damaging.
Mr. Damgaard provides an example of a pastor of a religious group who was a gifted speaker but was highly controlling and legalistic. As a result of the leader’s manipulations, fifty of his group became damaged and hurting and they left the organization. The leader called the group of fifty “trouble-makers”.
The article describes a number of basic features that a potential member or family member can use to assist in discerning whether the group’s members are in or would be in a safe and healthy environment.
Following is our summary of some of the things to look for based on the above article:
- Generally Relaxed Environment – Is there a rigid dogmatic legalistic uptight atmosphere or are people free to enjoy a spirit of lightheartedness where people are able to express joy and to laugh?
- Regarding essential elements of the religious denomination, are there clear distinctions made between primary, secondary and tertiary doctrinal priorities or do members feel that they are obliged to consider all of the group’s teachings as absolutely and equally essential?
- Are members allowed and encouraged to question group’s teachings and is there an openness to have intelligent discussion about anything they may feel uncomfortable about?
- Is there an environment where forgiveness is normally expected to be offered or are there ongoing grudges?
- Is there a healthy sharing of power among the group leaders?
- Is there a healthy balance of power between the leaders and members of the group?
- Are there periodic changes of individual leaders in different levels of authority in the group or is there an individual or small group who retain tight control?
- Are the group leaders open to sincere and honest questions from the members in a transparent manner and is there any withholding of information?
- Is there a good balance of formality and informality in the group and allowance for humor?
- Is there genuine friendliness with strangers?
- Is there excessive focus on expanding membership (and fund raising)?
- Is there a healthy relationship with the parent organization, (e.g. the local parishes)?
- Are members free to leave without undue pressure to remain?
The author concludes with a caution to watch out for legalism, a feeling of being report-carded, excessive monitoring of accountability, heavy handed authority or oligarchy (concentration of power with a small elite group).
We encourage those interested in this topic to read the entire article for a more accurate presentation of the information covered.
Considering the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi (especially the 3gf consecrated) two questions come to our minds as we read the I.C.S.A. article.
During the decades when Fr. Marcial Maciel was in control, were his organizations safe and healthy?
Since the appointment of a Vatican delegate and a renewal, are these organizations safe and healthy for their members today?
The first of these questions is easy to answer based on the hundreds of articles on this website and the many articles written by credible authors over the years. ReGAIN and other websites were started and some have continued because of concerns about what we and many ex members and some Catholic Church leaders consider unhealthy and unsafe conditions for members. Our primary concerns are based on what we believe to be the loss of free will and the excessive level of dependence required for the Legionary priests and the consecrated members of Regnum Christi.
We are aware of the psychological, emotional and spiritual abuse many of them have suffered and the sexual abuse that some former members experienced when they were very young from the very founder of both organizations. The abuses were carried out within a secretive, isolated and militaristic environment.
Since the Vatican became directly involved, we recognize that there have been some improvements in the conditions. Consecrated members are now allowed to have more time with their family members. The number of written rules and the rigidity of following those rules have decreased. Members receive their mail unopened. We are aware that there are other changes being considered.
We continue to have a high level of concern regarding the freedom of mind and the independence of consecrated members and can offer several of our reasons as follows:
In our opinion, neither the Legion nor Regnum Christi has ever existed primarily to serve God and humanity. Because of the good intentions of individual members, there are some good fruits that happen but we believe that the fundamental purpose of the upper echelon of leaders has to do with money and power for themselves. One obvious indication of this is the huge accumulation of wealth that has been reported by Jason Berry and other writers in Grupo Integer, the financial wing of the Legion. If the primary purpose was to do good then there would be more to show for the enormous amounts of fund raising associated with the Legion.
Until the Vatican intervened, we believe that the Legion showed little if any initiative or strong desire to have more freedom for their members. The Legion/Regnum cooperated with the Vatican because if they wanted to continue as Catholic organizations they were forced to.
In the years between when the senior leaders of the Legion discovered about their founder’s secret lives, they chose to pretend that he was a saint and continued to encourage their members to believe he was a living saint. They treated outside critics as “evil detractors” and discredited them in various ways.
During the years of scandal and uncertainty they kept on recruiting new members as if there was nothing wrong.
The Vatican commissioner’s limited scope of work was primarily to oversee the writing and approval of new constitutions. The commissioner’s expertise was in canon law and financial matters. His primary role was not to investigate and reform the cultic methodology and structure. Some improvements have been made that resulted from his review of the regulations but we question whether there is a strong will among the leaders to make the types of changes needed to truly create a safe and healthy environment.