Legion revamps girls' school program after abuses

By Nicole Winfield

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, July 15 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

FILE This Nov. 30, 2004 file photo shows Pope John Paul II gives his blessing to late father Marcial Maciel, founder of Christ's Legionaries, during a special audience the pontiff granted to about four thousand participants of the Regnum Christi movement, at the Vatican. Dozens of women who attended a high school run by the disgraced Legion of Christ religious order have urged the Vatican to close the program, saying the psychological abuse they endured trying to live like teenage nuns led to multiple cases of anorexia, stress-induced migraines, depression and even suicidal thoughts. The women sent a letter this weekend to the pope's envoy running the Legion to denounce the manipulation, deception and disrespect they suffered at the hands of directors barely older than themselves _ trauma which for some required years of psychological counseling that cost them tens of thousands of dollars. (AP Photo/Plinio Lepri, File)

Pliino Lepri, Associated Press

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The troubled Legion of Christ religious order says it is revamping a specialized high school program for teenage girls after dozens of alumni denounced psychological abuses they say they endured that resulted in eating disorders, stress-induced ailments and depression.

The Legion's lay branch, Regnum Christi, posted a statement on its website Thursday outlining the changes after The Associated Press reported that 77 alumni had written to the Vatican calling for the program in the U.S., Mexico and Spain to be closed because of the harm done to them in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Girls in the program now have more contact with their families, more exposure to the "realities of the world," more freedom from rigorous work schedules and, for the first time, assistance in getting into college, the statement said. Many of these changes began some time ago, but some are more recent.

The problems in the program are the latest blow to the troubled, cult-like Legion, which was discredited in 2009 when it revealed that its founder was a pedophile and drug addict who fathered three children. The Legion suffered subsequent credibility problems following its recent admission that its most famous priest had fathered a child and the current Legion superior covered it up for years.

The Legion saga represents one of the greatest scandals of the 20th century Catholic Church since its late founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, had been held up as a living saint by his followers and a model of holiness by Pope John Paul II because of his ability to recruit men and money to the priesthood, even though the Vatican knew for decades he had sexually abused his seminarians.

Pope Benedict XVI took over the Mexico-based order in 2010 and appointed an envoy to reform the Legion and Regnum Christi. But the reform hasn't progressed smoothly, with defections from disillusioned members and criticism that some superiors remain resistant to change.

The high school program, called the precandidacy, is a specialized religious high school for girls who are considering joining Regnum Christi's consecrated branch, where women live like nuns making promises of poverty, chastity and obedience and working in Legion-run schools and youth programs.

In a letter to papal envoy Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, and on a new blog, www.49weeks.blogspot.com, dozens of former students described the anorexia, stress-induced migraines, gastritis and back problems, clinically diagnosed depression and suicidal thoughts that some still struggle with even years after leaving.

They blamed these problems on the spiritual, emotional and psychological abuse they say they suffered while students at the Immaculate Conception Academy, for 20 years headquartered in Wakefield, Rhode Island, but recently transferred to Oxford, Michigan. They described an environment where counselors slightly older than they insisted they follow the most minute of rules governing how they walked, talked, prayed and ate, telling them they would be violating God's will if they erred.

The girls said the program's directors and counselors read and withheld the girls' mail, barred close friendships, isolated the girls from their families 49 weeks a year and insisted that they confide only in them. That garnered the girls' trust but also gave directors an easy way to manipulate those they wanted to keep on as potential consecrated leaders and those they decided didn't have a vocation and should go home.

The head of the consecrated women in the United States, Monica Trevino, said in a statement she was "saddened to think that some of the former pre-candidates were hurt, and I would love for us to be able to reach out to them and for them to have peace that some of these changes are in fact being made."

On the same day Regnum Christi announced the reforms in its precandidacy program, De Paolis issued an update of his own about the reform process, turning his attention for the first time to Regnum Christi.

He said the movement's actual identity needed to be defined, as well as its relationship with the broader Legion. And he announced a historical review of the origins of the movement, which claims thousands of members around the globe.

Maciel, who founded the Legion in Mexico in 1941, modeled Regnum Christi after Opus Dei, the conservative movement founded in Spain that is made up of priests and lay Catholics who devote varying amounts of their time and money to Opus Dei's mission of sanctifying everyday work.

One of the main tasks De Paolis has been shepherding through is a defining of its essential spirit, or charism, that makes the Legion unique and inspires it.

Regnum Christi: www.regnumchristi.org

Follow Nicole Winfield on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/nwinfield

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