PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rhode Island Supreme Court justices on Tuesday raised questions about the conduct of a disgraced Roman Catholic order, but they also expressed doubts about whether lawsuits can move forward over $60 million a widow gave to the group.
The Legion of Christ is being sued by Mary Lou Dauray, who says her late aunt, Gabrielle Mee, would not have given the money if she knew its founder secretly fathered three children and molested seminarians. She argues her aunt, a devout Catholic, was manipulated into donating tens of millions of dollars during her lifetime and leaving tens of millions more in her will.
In 2012, a superior court judge found that Dauray does not have standing to sue, and he threw out her lawsuits against the Legion of Christ and Bank of America, which oversaw trusts for Mee and her late husband. Timothy Mee was once a director of Fleet Bank, a predecessor to Bank of America.
Dauray appealed the decision to the state's high court.
Even while dismissing the lawsuits in 2012, the lower court judge found there was evidence that the legion had exerted undue influence on Gabrielle Mee, who became a consecrated member of its lay movement. He wrote that how they operated raised a red flag, receiving huge sums of money from Mee while also withholding information from her about the misdeeds of Legion of Christ founder Marcial Maciel.
The Vatican took over the Legion in 2010 and launched a reform process that culminated this year with the election of a new government and approval of constitutions.
Dauray's lawyer, Bernard Jackvony, argued that while his client does not want the money for herself and wants it to go to charity, she could stand to benefit from her aunt's estate and therefore may be allowed to sue.
Lawyers for the Legion of Christ argued that Mee and her late husband, who did not have surviving children, had set up their financial affairs so that their money would ultimately go to charity.
"Because all of that money must go to charity, and (Dauray) is not a charity, she is not qualified as a legally interested person," the legion's lawyer, Joseph Avanzato argued.
Justice Gilbert Indeglia expressed sympathy for Dauray's position, while acknowledging the court can't allow her to sue simply to get a case argued and decided.
"She believes they were improper in their conduct," Indeglia said. "From what you read in the papers, there is at least some question."
Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg was blunt in her assessment of the legion's conduct.
"The trial judge had a little bit to say about your client. None of it was attractive," Goldberg told Avanzato.
She added later it was clear the widow did not know about Maciel's activities.
About $30 million of the money given by Mee remains in a trust that is on schedule to be paid out to the Legion of Christ by 2042, Avanzato told the court.
Bank of America is accused of breaching its fiduciary duty to Mee. It argues Dauray can't prove that.
Dauray said after Tuesday's arguments that she appreciated the justices' studying of the case, and said the case has taken her years to research.
"It's been very difficult," she said. "I'm very determined, and I want to honor my aunt."