Feb 20, 2013

Rhode Island Documents Expose Legionaries Fraud

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Says Jason Berry in the National Catholic Reporter:

The Vatican is not a defendant in Rhode Island, but decisions by John Paul and Pope Benedict XVI permeate a larger story rising from the files.

In short, had the Vatican not continued to endorse the Legionaries of Christ long after they knew of its leader's many crimes and abuses, devout Catholics like Gabrielle Mee would likely not have been bilked out of their fortunes.

As discussed, Mee's niece, Mary Lou Dauray sued to prevent the Legionaries from inheriting 60 million dollars, contending that they had defrauded the elderly woman into supporting them. The suit was dismissed last fall on the grounds that she lacked the legal standing to bring the complaint. Dauray is appealing. But in the meanwhile, the press succeeded in getting court documents unsealed last Friday. Those documents provide a window into the money-raising architecture of the exceedingly wealthy Legionaries of Christ.

Dauray contends that had Mee known of Maciel's proven crimes and infractions of Catholic doctrine, she would not have devoted her fortune to his organization. And it appears that she was kept in the dark about the bulk of it.

Mee was aware of accusations by nine seminarians in 1997 that Maciel had abused them, but accepted entirely the Legion's contention that these were false accusations. There is no indication that she knew of the revelations that forced Maciel out of his Legionaries leadership position and into "a life of prayer and penitence." She did not know that he had sired children, although Vatican officials knew of at least one daughter as early as 2004.

The unsealed documents show that high-ranking members of the church were aware as early as 2004 that Maciel might have fathered at last one child. The records show that the group's second-highest ranking member, the Rev. Luis Garza, obtained a birth certificate in 2006 of one of Maciel's children.

By the time the ugly details began to be exposed, Mee was deep in the organization's thrall and had dedicated her life to them. She was living something close to a cloistered existence as a consecrated member of the Legionaries lay organization Regnum Christi. She had given up most of her ties to her previous life. Like priests and nuns, consecrated members of Regnum Christi take a vow of poverty and they turn all their assets over to the organization. You know, kind of like a cult.

Like everyone else in the order's closed environment, Mee was taught that Nuestro Padre, as Maciel was called, had his enemies, but that he was a living saint for his leadership as an evangelist, drawing the church back from liberal abuses of the Second Vatican Council and attracting young men to a strict religious life. That was the Legion message.

. . .

At his death, the Legion website announced that Maciel had gone to heaven. Yet at that very time, Fr. Luis Garza and other top Legionaries were scrambling to decide how, and when, to reveal that Maciel had a grown daughter -- a fact the Vatican had known for three years.

Dauray's concern was triggered, in part, by her own experience in the cultish thrall of a Buddhist leader in San Francisco. She too had longed, at one point, for a simple life of spiritual devotion -- something she had enjoyed at a boarding school/convent founded by her monsignor uncle. But over time she began to realize that there was something wrong in a group that worked its followers continuously and began co-opting their wealth. She left it, breaking up her second marriage.

Dauray's life is like something out of a movie. An artist and former covert operative for the CIA under the Kennedy Administration, at 72, she is far from naive. When her aunt told her she was immersing herself in Regnum Christi, she was supportive, although she knew she would probably never see her again. She knew Mee was in great pain from osteoporosis and she understood her desire to live a life of peace and devotion.

In their conversations of family, Mee told her goddaughter she was joining a religious order. Dauray recalled: "She said, 'I am going to join a group where I can offer -- I'm in great pain. Where I can offer all my sufferings to Christ.' "

It was only after Mee's death that Dauray became aware of reports of Maciel's corruption and she was certain that her aunt had been in the dark.

After Mee's death in 2008, Dauray began hearing media reports about her aunt's order (Regnum Christi, a lay wing of the Legion), specifically about Legion founder Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado fathering multiple children and about a Vatican investigation. From conversations with family and others, she learned her aunt was never left alone, and at times was prohibited from traveling.

The descriptions rang familiar to Dauray's experiences at Ajari's group home. She saw the Legion as a cult -- a term she refrained from applying to Ajari's group, instead calling it "cult-like" -- and inconsistent with her aunt's strong Catholic faith and charitable guidelines.

"I just know my aunt, and if she had known what was going on with the Legionnaires, she would not have turned over all her assets. ... She would have revoked [her support]," Dauray said.

Dauray insists that she is not suing to gain her aunt's assets for herself and has stated that she wants the money to go to a properly vetted Catholic charity, in good standing with the Church. Of course, the Legionaries were in good standing with the Church until 2010, when they were put under the direct control of the Vatican, even though they had long known that the organization was rife with corruption.

Pope Benedict himself admitted that the Vatican had been delinquent in its handling of Maciel.

"Unfortunately we addressed these things very slowly and late," Benedict said in a book released Tuesday. "Somehow they were concealed very well, and only around the year 2000 did we have any concrete clues."

Note the timeline. They had "concrete clues" as early as 2000, yet when he was approached in April of 2002 by ABC, then Cardinal Ratzinger slapped a reporter's hand and told them it wasn't the right "moment" to pursue the story. This, of course, was several years after he'd shelved a lawsuit brought by Legion seminarians who claimed to have been sexually abused by Maciel. He did so without any investigation or asking the men a single question. Pretty hard to find those "concrete clues" if you refuse to look for them.

Meanwhile, the rank and file inside the Legionaries of Christ and the Regnum Christi remained in the dark about what the Vatican was incrementally allowing themselves to become aware of, but still attempting to hide from the public.

Throughout, the Legionaries were raising buckets of money for themselves and to spread around the Vatican. They did so largely by grooming wealthy, older women like Gabrielle Mee.

Robert Sylvestre of Fleet Bank, the Mee's bank, who was somewhat friendly with the affluent widow had become interested in the Legionaries. He became acquainted with a wealthy Canadian named Fred Hill who acted as something of a middle man for Catholic charities like the Legionaries. One charity was so aggressive they threatened to visit Mee while she was in hospital. Sylvestre knew that was wrong and he threatened to call the police. He was more impressed with the far smoother Legionaries. So was Mee.
Their conservatism and emphasis on ordaining new priests to spread the Church's message far and wide appealed to Mee. Their stated values were in alignment with her own. So Sylvestre vetted their financials and pronounced them solid enough for her to contribute. He facilitated meetings between Mee and representatives of the Legionaries. Ultimately she met the territorial director for North America, Father Anthony Bannon, who introduced her to Maciel himself.

The notoriously charming Maciel shared with Mee that the organization was in a "cash crunch" -- which was an absurdity. But, he said, they would "only ask God for what we need."

"And the angel Gabriel came down from heaven," Mee replied, referencing her first name, Gabrielle.

He wrote her a personal note after her first million dollar donation.

"I am deeply moved and very grateful for this extraordinary gift," Maciel wrote. "You have no idea how much good this act of generosity will produce for the church."

Perhaps sensing Mee's desire for an increase in the number of Catholic priests, Maciel also invited her to come to Rome on Jan. 3, 1991, for the seminary's inauguration, which was to include the ordination of 55 Legion priests.

"That the founder of The Legion of Christ has written to me is just overwhelming!" Mee replied in a September 1989 handwritten letter of response to Maciel, whom she addressed as "beloved Father."

Mee was hooked.

In the early 2000s, Sylvestre learned from newspaper accounts of the allegations against Maciel. He never saw fit to tell Mee any of that, but only because he's certain that it wouldn't have mattered. She would not have held the leader's behavior against the organization, he contends.

By all accounts, Mee lived out her life in the bosom of Regnum Christi and she would not have had it any other way. She may have been deluded but she was happy and fulfilled, all of which leaves me feeling a little ambivalent. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. We should all be so lucky as to spend our declining years exactly where we want to be, in peace and communion with God.

She remained protected from the erupting scandal that would eventually take down its leader and ultimately force the organization under Vatican control.

"There is no evidence that Mrs. Mee knew of the detailed allegations against Maciel nor the existence of the Hartford Courant article," plaintiff attorney Bernard Jackvony told NCR. "Rather, it shows that she was in the dark."

Regnum Christi posted a notice in its residences saying that Nuestro Padre was under attack in a false article. But that, it appears, is the extent of what Mee knew.

She also had no idea that her friend Father Bannon was using her money as leverage with Fleet Bank as the organization wrestled with the impact of bad publicity. A memo from a bank official explains:

In terms of additional credit concerns the Legion was concerned about the impact of the surprise on Fleet. Father Bannon offered to pledge the cash flow stream from the Mee trust funds in order to provide additional security in this uncertain period. I thanked him, but communicated that it would be a significant conflict of interest if we were to seek a perfected security interest in the Mee funds because we are also a trustee [for Gabrielle Mee and for the Timothy Mee Charitable Trust].

The Legionaries sued the bank.

In 2001, Bannon obtained sweeping power of attorney, drafted by the Legion's lawyers, for Mee's affairs. The Legion sued Fleet to obtain greater access to the combined Mee funds, with Gabrielle testifying for the Legion. The two sides settled out of court. Fleet later merged with Bank of America. Because of the 2001 agreement, Dauray's lawsuit includes the bank as a defendant with the Legion on allegations of fraud.

All of this happened with Mee's consent. She was a consecrated member of Regnum Christi and had turned her life and all her worldly goods over to them as part of her vow. But one could hardly call it informed consent.

Mee and many like her invested vast sums into an organization that Andrew Sullivan fairly described as a "pederastic cult." It is unlikely that such benefactors knew that the organization, for all its "cash crunches," was keeping a declining Maciel to the tune of $20,000 a month. They continued to foot such bills even as awareness grew within the Vatican that something was rotten in the Legionaries of Christ.

The Vatican played its game of rolling disclosure, trailing the press on revelations about its star priest's debauched life. In 2006, Pope Benedict sentenced Maciel to "a life of prayer and penitence," which we are all supposed to believe settled the matter. In reading a bit more about how that sentence played out, I find I am stunned at my own naivete. I guess I was imagining something along the lines of a secluded monastery. A house in a gated community in Jacksonville, FL, surrounded by a "community" of Legion priests, definitely wasn't what I'd envisioned. It also appears that Norma, one of his mistresses, continued to visit him along with their daughter Normita.

One again, we see the political acumen of Pope Benedict XVI in action.

Yet even with his new home, Maciel pined for Rome. He flew back in September 2006, hoping to attend the canonization ceremony of one of his uncles, a bishop in Mexico. The timing of Benedict's dismissal order was undoubtedly tied to that canonization. Vatican officials did not want a beaming Maciel at the ceremony knowing, as one official later told NCR, that he had molested "more than 20 but less than 100" victims.

In other words, Maciel's "confinement" had far more to do with keeping him out of sight than punishing or reforming him.

So what did Pope Benedict and the Vatican hope to gain from years of playing cat and mouse with the truth about one of the most flagrant, serial abusers in Church history? Jason Berry cites professor, author, and survivor of Maciel's abuse, Jose Barba. He contends that it was to protect his predecessor and "defend the sainthood case against the accusations that John Paul protected predators."

The upshot here is that, once again, abuses and crimes were known by Church officials. They were covered-up and only revealed in a pattern of rolling disclosure as media reportage forced the issue. The crimes were not reported to the authorities. The punishment meted out by the Church was woefully inadequate to the crimes committed. Officials insulated themselves from scandal and protected their own career advancement. Devoted Catholics were kept in the dark which allowed them to be harmed by criminal behavior.

This is a pattern we've seen in diocese after diocese all over the world. But this time the cover-up was enabled, even perpetrated, by the Vatican.

None of the key players in this criminal enterprise are likely to ever experience appropriate consequences. Maciel is dead and buried, as is Pope John Paul II. And Pope Benedict XVI is about to retire to a contemplative life in a remodeled convent, still safely within the Vatican where he will maintain his immunity from prosecution. But the truth will out. Once again, an Angel Gabriel in human form is, however unwittingly, revealing the hidden secrets of the Church. Blow, Gabriel, blow.

The National Catholic Reporter's excellent reportage on the Rhode Island documents can be found here, here, here, and here.

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