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Communities falter under heavy hands

NCR Staff
Gaithersburg, Md.

The cardinal's warm greeting and conciliatory tones quickly gave way to a stern warning as he delivered a nine-page address to a small segment of his flock.

The Mother of God charismatic covenant community may have been "a gift from the Lord," as Cardinal James Hickey of Washington said at the start of his talk, but it was a gift that was being badly misused.

"This community," Hickey said in the Sept. 25, 1995, meeting with members of the group, "suffers from a lack of charity, from the failure to reach out in reconciliation, from anger, suspicion, slander, fear." In the same address, he warned that "no private individual can say he or she presents the absolute will of God for another person in life's personal decisions. No lay person has a right to demand religious obedience from a fellow adult lay Catholic."

Hickey could have been speaking for more than a few other bishops who have confronted the excesses of some charismatic communities in their own dioceses during the past two decades.

It may be unusual for a cardinal to get so closely involved with a parochial dispute, but charismatic covenant communities historically have presented anything but the normal run of local church problems. In "covenant" communities, members make a specific commitment to the group, to its rules and to obedience to leadership. When such groups attract the attention of the local bishop, it is usually after community leadership has become so authoritarian and controlling that members begin to rebel. The Mother of God community was only the latest in a string of such stories.

By the time Hickey became involved, as his tone and language indicate, the community had begun spinning out of control. The story of the community's breakup came to NCR's attention in 1995. Details emerged during months of interviewing and reviewing documents and videotapes that recorded some of the community's history. The details show that what had begun with the innocence of a simple prayer and Bible study group had grown into an organization with leadership that controlled courtship, marriage and other family arrangements, as well as careers and finances.

The story of the Mother of God community demonstrates how well-intentioned religious fervor can be co-opted and manipulated and how apparently noble motives can lead to damaging practices in the name of faith.

Fr. Michael Duggan, a Canadian priest and theologian involved in the community for more than a decade but now back in Canada, wrote in the spring of 1995, "I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that only in the last nine months did I comprehend the total picture, which I shall describe." He wrote of the community's "pre-scientific, quasi-dualistic world-view" that "removes God from the present world order." Duggan, in a 4,000-word paper that critiqued the community's teaching and pastoral practice, warned of the "strong hierarchical structure in which practically all power has been concentrated in two coordinators," referring to community cofounder Edith Difato and her son Joseph.

"The matter became extremely serious when people would make life-determining decisions based on the advice of these coordinators," wrote Duggan, who said the community teaching "was accorded an aspect of infallibility that one rarely identifies even with statements of the pope."

During an early 1996 community retreat, after the Difatos had departed, the interim governing committee chair, Robert J. Roche, gave an example of "how we felt compelled to conform to norms of submission that are not normal."

In a printed report of that meeting, Roche is quoted as saying that when he became engaged he tried to stop his fiancée from telling anyone about it at the Sunday night prayer meeting until he had told his head or superior.

"I was a 61 year-old man," said Roche, "all worried. I certainly acted ridiculous in front of [my fiancée]." But there was in the community, he said, "this built-up sense that we had to behave in certain ways. We also were reluctant to question things for fear of being judged. As covenanted members we were obligated to follow the discernment given or explain why we didn't follow it.

"Our younger members living in households were expected to be obedient to their household head without question," said Roche. "We crossed a line we should not have crossed. Instead of just helping people, we began to make decisions for each other and intruded into each others private lives. We gave up our own decision-making to our heads and leaders, and to a great extent gave up exercise of our own conscience to the community conscience. Our head came between ourselves and God or between children and their parents or between us and the authority of the church."

In its report, the committee listed dozens of examples of how husbands and wives "were in effect pitted against each other," of "how the leadership did not listen when concerns about practices were brought up," "young people were told they couldn't live in their parents' homes; they could not move back home; they were told their parents did not want them back."

The list gives an indication of the degree of control exercised by the leaders: people denied the right to go to confession, single people considered sentimental for wanting to spend time with their families, arranged marriages, and couples required to get permission to date.

The leadership controlled the community's moneymaker, The Word Among Us, a magazine that was generating $2 million to $3 million a year. There were also financial links at one point to a commercial computer graphics firm, Orange Systems.

Two months before Hickey's address, Jeff Smith, then editor (now publisher) of The Word Among Us, wrote to Hickey's assistant, Bishop William Lori, that Joseph Difato had been asked to resign from the publication's board. Smith also offered Lori a $200,000 pledge to the archdiocese.

An outside consultant had valued the The Word Among Us "conservatively" at $8 million, Smith wrote, and suggested a severance package for Difato of between $990,000 and $1.5 million. Apparently Difato was offered a figure less than a 10th of this, which he refused. NCR could not document the outcome.

In September, Hickey told the community he wanted a "comprehensive financial audit covering a period of 10 years ... available for all the members to read. Members should be aware of any changes in board membership. They should be aware of the assets of these corporations. There should be no attempt to sell assets, to transfer assets or dissolve these corporations during the coming months."

When, subsequently, the Difatos and their leadership team broke away from the Mother of God community to continue on as their own community, they took The Word Among Us with them. As 1995 ended, Hickey did not renew the publication's imprimatur as an official Catholic publication. It is still published in the archdiocese.

In January 1997, Hickey's office reported that there had been an audit by "a major firm that did not reveal anything the community felt warranted action."

Contacted by telephone, Edith Difato declined to talk to NCR. Asked if other members of the family would discuss the situation, she said no.

Not everyone in the Mother of God community allowed the leadership to go unchallenged. Four months before Hickey's appearance, Judith Tydings, a mother of four and a cofounder of the community with Edith Difato, took the microphone to speak to the regular Sunday prayer meeting. But it was not regular prayer meeting talk. As a videotape of that meeting shows, Tydings, her voice shaking at times, explained that someone had written to the community's pastoral board complaining of her treatment by a community member after a prayer meeting. Tydings had been asked to act as ombudsman. She talked to the parties concerned, she said, and believed the person was owed an apology.

News spread quickly about her inquiry into the complaint. Soon her phone began ringing regularly, and people were coming to her door to "share all sorts of things with me in the area of alleged financial irregularities, instances of what they were calling 'pastoral abuse' and even concerns that were theological."

One of those who contacted Tydings during her inquiry was Capuchin Fr. Thomas Weinandy, a systematic theologian active in the community. He told Tydings of his concern for the community he loved and followed up with a nine-page letter to the community pastoral board. In the letter, Weinandy, active in the community in the 1980s and now teaching in England, observed that "there grew up within the community an atmosphere where a free exchange of ideas was not permitted. Loyalty to the community teaching (and to its leaders who express this teaching) became absolute." While professing his own distaste for clericalism, Weinandy said that he believed that an "inordinate fear of clericalism" had resulted in a community ethic that "systematically and knowingly undermined the authority of the priests."

He said that Catholicism, "while not attacked directly was not fostered and promoted."

Charges of absolutism and unbending authority that permitted no free exchange of ideas were nothing new to charismatic communities, which grew out of the Catholic Charismatic movement, dating back to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh in the late 1960s. There, a prayer group, inspired by the Protestant Pentecostal movement, was formed in 1967. Later that year two Michigan State graduates, Ralph Martin and Stephen Clark, were baptized in the Spirit at a Notre Dame University gathering.

Baptism in the Spirit is a hallmark of the movement, an indication that the believer has given his or her life over to the Spirit of God in a special way. The moment is often accompanied by literal manifestations of the gifts of the Spirit listed in the New Testament, gifts such as speaking in tongues and pronouncing prophecies.

From the start, the charismatic experience was well outside the normal prayer and worship expressions of traditional U.S. Catholics. The communities that developed were also mostly outside the mainstream, often developing on their own, with no accountability to church authorities and often with only minimal association with normal parish structures.

Trouble elsewhere

What happened at the Mother of God community is significant because it represents a pattern that occurred in other charismatic communities and may occur again unless some oversight is built into diocesan structures where the communities exist. But even if diligent oversight were in place, authorities are fairly limited in controlling independent lay groups until those groups seek official church approval, as did the Mother of God community, or until the groups infringe on other church operations. The pattern of abuse in charismatic communities is clear and well-documented:

  • Eighteen months before the breakup of the Mother of God group, some members of the Lamb of God covenant community in suburban Baltimore, Md., protested against having their lives manipulated. They complained of a "Stalinist" spy network that interfered in marriages and "devastated" them. Baltimore Cardinal William Keeler met with both sides of the dispute. Through leader David Nodar, Keeler invited the community to apply for official status as an archdiocesan organization. Nodar agreed to draw up statutes of governance.
  • In 1990, after two successive Newark, N.J., archbishops had involved themselves in the affairs of the People of Hope Community of Berkeley Heights, N.J., people who left that community were speaking freely of its disastrous effects on them and their children. The archdiocese formed an approved group for the dissidents, but it is barely functioning, according to one member.
  • Also in 1990, Bishop Albert Ottenweller of Steubenville, Ohio, ordered the Servants of Christ covenant community, founded by Fr. Michael Scanlon, to disaffiliate itself from the Sword of the Spirit Protestant covenant community network.

Subsequently, tales of woe emerged, too, from the Word of God community in Ann Arbor, Mich., a major Catholic affiliate of Sword of the Spirit and for many years a center of teaching and publishing for the charismatic movement throughout the United States. Sword of the Spirit under Steve Clark and Word of God under Ralph Martin split apart.

In 1991 Martin acknowledged that a community training course, while valuable in some respects, was, on the whole, "an ill-advised venture that led to considerable confusion, turmoil, spiritual distress both in individuals and in the community as a body," "fostered elitism," "attempted to build a comprehensive Christian culture by fiat," was especially harmful to women and "had a negative impact on many marriages and placed undue stress on many families."

According to Walter Matthews, director of the National Service Committee of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, there are probably 5,000 flourishing Catholic prayer groups nationwide, with covenant communities at perhaps 100 sites.

Why aren't they happy?

Back in Maryland, Judith Tydings' charismatic story began, she said, in January 1966. She was praying, when "I had an experience of God in my living room. It revolutionized my life."

Tydings is an alumna of Catholic schools and college and was married in 1958. She and her husband, John, and their four children lived in wealthy Potomac, Md.

Sometime after her living room experience, Tydings was attending morning Mass at Our Lady of Mercy parish in Potomac when she observed that "everyone looked kind of tired and miserable going to Communion, and I thought, 'Why aren't they happy like I am?' So I made a deal with God -- Catholics always do. I said, 'Take my life, but I want to know what this is all about so I can talk to other people about it.' "

Tydings was convinced there was something in "this possibility of knowing, this process of being born again." So she made her deal.

Two days later, after Mass, she met Edith Difato and some other women. All the women, she said, had had some kind of conversion experience. They began reading books and sharing experiences.

Tydings and Difato "over time became friends." There was a Bible study at Difato's house, and they would meet with others after daily Mass. Still, Tydings searched for answers.

Eventually, she asked her pastor about having prayer meetings at the church. They agreed to start one the following Friday in the basement of the rectory.

So, with Difato, three priests, one nun and five other women -- all white, educated and upper middle class -- the prayer meeting convened.

By the fourth prayer meeting -- at this point she and the pastor were holding them in the church auditorium -- about 100 people turned up, including priests and nuns from The Catholic University of America in Washington. The growing force of the prayer meeting so concerned the pastor that he asked for a meeting with Cardinal Patrick O'Boyle, head of the Washington archdiocese at that time.

The cardinal said the Tydings group could no longer meet in parish facilities and the pastor could not attend. Around 1971, Tydings recalled, Edith Difato told her that her accountant husband, Michael, recommended they incorporate. "The idea sounded good to me," said Tydings. By this time, she said, Edith Difato had emerged as leader and while there hadn't been collections -- the soft drinks and cookies were free -- at some point contributions began. Tydings was told she was secretary.

From that year on, Tydings told the community meeting in May 1995, she signed any piece of paper put in front of her. Just before incorporation, Tydings had been drawn into the larger charismatic movement and attended a conference at Notre Dame, which was home to the Catholic charismatic renewal. At a follow-up meeting after the 1969 Notre Dame conference, she became secretary for the national group.

"It was at that meeting we elected/selected the National Service Committee -- Ralph Martin, Stephen Clark and Kevin Ranaghan," and others, said Tydings. "They sort of nominated themselves, and that's how the leadership of the charismatic renewal emerged," she said.

Meanwhile, the Mother of God community continued to grow. Over its 30-year history, it would reach a membership high of 1,200 before its breakup. As in many charismatic covenant communities, Mother of God had celibate households, but, Weinandy told the community's pastoral board in 1995, "I am convinced we do not really know how to train young men and women to be mature Christian men and women and to be Christian leaders. We have no well-thought-out philosophy on this. I believe we have needlessly lost a great many young people because we did not know what we were doing."

And Hickey told the community, "I am particularly concerned that young people, children, adolescents and young adults lack a solid foundation in church teaching. Many older members came to the community well-instructed in the basic truths of the faith and were better able to integrate community teachings into their life of faith. But younger people have not had the benefit of a full and systematic instruction in the faith."

Tydings, meanwhile, became ill around 1980 and was uninvolved in community activities for nearly 10 years, except for writing for The Word Among Us.

When a recuperated Tydings returned in 1990, she found herself on the outside, on the edge of the community's hierarchy. She said she told Difato, "Edith, there hasn't been anything wrong with me for quite some time. I want to know where I fit in." She was told she could take the place of someone who had moved out of the community and teach in the "Growing in Faith" program for new community members.

"When I got there," said Tydings, "I found I was put back to being a beginner. It was humbling. But I did the homework, I went to meetings, I bought a hat, I took makeup lessons, I dyed my hair. I cut it because women over a certain age, I was told -- you know. Toward the last few years, all that you did if you were a woman was talk about community teaching, go to teas and talk about your clothes and your makeup. But I did it."

She was marginalized, she said, and did not realize the extent of it until 1995 when she visited the British offshoot of the community. There, English Mother of God members Martin and Vanessa Mason told Tydings they had read her 1977 book, Gathering a People: Catholic Saints in Charismatic Perspective, and had wanted to meet her when the couple visited the Maryland community in 1992. They had been told she was seriously ill, even though Tydings was fully recovered by that time. Another British visitor told NCR that she suspected during visits to the Maryland group the kinds of leadership excesses Hickey outlined.

Also by 1992-93, said Tydings, "in a community that already had three layers of membership [friends, associate members and covenant members] there was really another top layer, Unio Crucis [Union of the Cross] for really elite men, a central core of which included the Difatos' three sons, Joe, Jack and Michael Jr." Around the core were 60 men, women and priests. "Their Goshen House meetings were the really 'in' holy teaching, the really secret teachings," said Tydings. She said she asked Difato if she could sit in on the meetings, just sit in the corner and not ask questions.

Difato told her, "You can't come. I have 60 loyal people." Tydings recalled, "The word loyal didn't strike me at the time. I figured they're stuck with me. It's my community as much as anybody's. I thought I was the only person miserable."

What may have triggered the initial archdiocesan involvement in the community's activities, said Tydings, was a conversation in 1990 in which Joseph Difato told Franciscan Fr. Theo Rush, "I think it's time for us to get [official archdiocesan] approval."

Cardinal's approval

In 1993, the archdiocese gave provisional approval to the Mother of God community as a private association of the faithful. Tydings sees the cardinal's provisional approval grounded in the fact that when "Cardinal Hickey looked out at the Mother of God community, he saw a systematic theologian [Weinandy], a British moral theologian [Fr. Peter Hocken], a canon lawyer [Rush], and a world-famous scripture scholar [Fr. Francis Martin], priests who were later preaching to bishops, Mother Teresa's missionaries in India, and elsewhere. I think the cardinal felt everything was just fine."

Some community members -- speaking off the record -- told NCR they thought the priests were responsible for allowing the situation to develop as it did and that they have been let off the hook too easily.

The archdiocese established an assessment committee to look further as the group wrote up its statutes.

The community responded by establishing a pastoral board -- "I think it was created because [the leadership] realized the archdiocese was going to have a problem with the way the community was controlled by two members in one family," Tydings said. The board did its own survey and assessment "and we came out 95 percent happy people," said Tydings.

The community's leaders, the priests and others were invited to meetings with the archdiocese. When Tydings was included in two meetings, she said, "We were scripted." She said the leadership told them, the archdiocese is "going to ask this and you say this. There were little rehearsals."

A turning point came in late April 1995. Because community members kept visiting her at her home, Tydings decided she needed to talk to an outside priest. She called Bishop William Lori. The bishop "was on the archdiocesan assessment committee, but at that point I have to say I don't think that entered my head."

The upshot was a meeting in Lori's office with Dominican Sr. Elizabeth McDonough, at that time a vicar general, and a few community members, including Tony Bosnick, founding editor of The Word Among Us.

"This was not planned. This just happened spontaneously," Tydings said. "Still, those loyal to the old leadership believe that a whole bunch of us got together and did a conspiracy with the diocese."

It was when McDonough showed Bosnick information regarding salaries, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, that these community members realized there was a double standard regarding compensation for leaders and staff.

"The money [the staff] had been given was so little," Tydings said later, "and Tony knew that the leadership had been teaching the simple life. Tony was trying to live a simple life." Instead, she said, Tony was marginalized.

Tydings said she had thought there was a board of businessmen overseeing the finances. "It never occurred to me that the leadership was paying itself without any community oversight," she said.

Community members continued to visit Tydings at home. They were so afraid of being seen with her that they would hide their cars. "These adults! Hiding their cars because they didn't want anybody in the community to know that we were beginning to question things," said Tydings. "I suddenly started looking at these grown men and I'm thinking, 'Why are we so frightened? What are we afraid of? This is ridiculous.' "

Community members and former members who talked with NCR were afraid of being sued. One early NCR interview session took place in a mall 20 miles from Gaithersburg because the members were afraid of being seen by other community members.

By April 1995, the archdiocesan assessment committee wanted to know if Tydings had been marginalized. Tydings spoke to an assessment committee member, a psychiatrist, "parroting" what the leadership had told her to say.

Later, said Tydings, "when the penny had dropped" and she realized the extent of the control being exercised, she returned to the psychiatrist and apologized, saying she had been "scripted."

She also told the psychiatrist that no one was moving to inform the community of what had been going on and that she was thinking of doing it. He replied, "Well?" That was May 20. Tydings went home and prayed, then called three people to ask if they thought she should address the prayer meeting. All three said yes.

The next day, the conservatively dressed Tydings, her fair hair cropped short in conformity with community standards, trembling slightly, looked around at the people gathered for prayer and talked to them.

New beginning, slowly

Despite Washington Cardinal Hickey's hopes, an April 1996 deadline for new community statutes came and went without approval by the archdiocese.

By June of that year the community, down to 200 members and minus the Difato group, had followed their draft statutes and elected a six-member community council (the new leadership) and a four-member advisory mediation panel.

The new leadership was in regular contact with the chancery office as negotiations toward the statutes continued. At that time, NCR submitted 10 questions to Hickey concerning the status of the community. The eventual response from the archdiocesan spokesperson was a single paragraph:

"The archdiocese is working in a very pastoral way with the new Mother of God leadership to help that new leadership heal the wounds of the past and to help the community move positively toward into the future. Further public comment will not serve those pastoral needs."

NCR resubmitted its questions and said that the reply failed to advise Catholics about whether they should belong to the community.

The archdiocese replied that progress was being made toward completing the Mother of God statutes; that the community school was now affiliated with the archdiocesan system; and that Mother of God's top level group, Unio Crucis, "as far as we know does not exist."

In January 1997, NCR again asked the archdiocese for its assessment of the community and its statutes. The archdiocese replied: "With Cardinal Hickey's guidance, the community has undergone a number of significant changes with regard to leadership, pastoral care, doctrine and teaching. The community is actively seeking healing and is addressing issues of the past as forthrightly and charitably as possible. Approval of [the statutes] is still pending, but imminent."

Hickey's office reported that there had been an audit by "a major firm," and that the audit had been presented to the community. "The audit did not reveal anything that the community felt warranted action."

There had been two healing retreats, and "a counseling professional oversees biweekly support groups for Mother of God members."

Asked if a system had been established for reconciling separated families, the archdiocese replied, "All members of the community were invited to the retreats. Where appropriate, the community offered professional counseling services to families as well as to individuals."

NCR asked Fr. Francis Martin, still a spiritual adviser to the community, about the separated families. Martin replied, "Sadly, those involved in such things are not members of the community any more. So, surely if I or we could do anything, we'd be happy to do it."

In January 1997, John O'Brien, a 22-year-member of the Mother of God community and chairman of the new community council, could report close to 200 people attending the weekly prayer meeting with perhaps 200 to 300 at the monthly liturgy at the Goshen Road campus, which the community owns. The campus includes a school, meeting rooms, offices and chapel.

Financially, O'Brien told NCR, the community was "hanging in."

Bishop Sam Jacobs of Alexandria, La., chairman of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' ad hoc committee on the charismatic renewal, declined to be interviewed by telephone.

From the early 1980s, Jacobs was a member of the National Service Committee of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, which oversees the movement in the United States. Later he was its chairman. He gave the following answers to questions faxed by NCR.

NCR: What does your committee do? What are its responsibilities and some examples of its recent work?

Jacobs: The committee meets to reflect on the [charismatic] renewal in this country. They are advisers to the bishops.

Have the bishops with troubled Catholic charismatic communities ever pooled their experiences, as the bishops with pedophile priests finally did to examine what goes wrong and why and what should be done?

Officially, no.

Has your committee ever produced a set of guidelines for bishops for the conduct of such communities and/or other lay-led organizations? Is such a plan on your agenda?

No -- that is not [the committee's] role.

No official guidelines

In Washington, Sr. Sharon Euart, staff person to the bishops' ad hoc committee on the charismatic renewal, said the committee meets once a year. It invites bishops interested in the charismatic movement to attend and sometimes brings in experts from the movement to address the group. "I would describe it as an informal gathering," she said.

As far as she knew, she said, the committee had never presented the body of bishops with guidelines regarding covenant communities in their dioceses. Bishops might call the conference and ask for some assistance, she said.

The National Service Committee's Matthews explained that in the renewal's early days, covenant communities began "because of interest in the call of the Lord to get involved in the everyday life of the people."

Matthews assessed covenant community problems this way: "They began to develop pastoral practices, men's and women's groups and headship that took them beyond what was typical of the average parish prayer group." He said that while the renewal also emphasized diocesan identity, whatever problems surfaced in covenant communities usually meant a bishop was responding to a community already in process rather than the bishop having been involved from the beginning.

In a clergy-short church, with its corollary increase in responsibility for the laity, what should be the episcopal role vis-a-vis charismatic and covenant and other lay-led communities?

Belgian Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens in 1987 wrote, "A policy of nonintervention falls short of what the faithful are entitled to expect of their spiritual guides."

In the early 1970s, Suenens was asked by Pope Paul VI to be chief shepherd of Catholicism's burgeoning charismatic community.

It was a position Suenens publicly accepted with some enthusiasm, and he began to write on the topic in books such as A New Pentecost? and Renewal and the Powers of Darkness.

What is it the U.S. bishops might warn against? In the late 1980s, Bishop Albert H. Ottenweller of Steubenville, Ohio, published findings regarding allegations of misconduct at the Servants of Christ the King community. These allegations echo elsewhere.

The findings of the visitation committee, as described by Steubenville's Msgr. James A. Boehm in the Steubenville Register, were almost interchangeable with the list in the report of the Mother of God community's interim listening committee. Boehm's description of the Servants of Christ the King community included:

"A lack of honest communication. The coordinators of the Servants told the bishop only what he asked for specifically. They did not tell him that representatives of Sword of the Spirit took up residence in Steubenville to form the Servants in [the] Sword of the Spirit vision, values and lifestyle."

Sword of the Spirit, said Boehm, was a controversial nondenominational evangelical organization founded in 1982 in Ann Arbor, Mich., whose influence extends to about 50 charismatic communities around the world.

"Control of members' lives: Letters from and interviews with current and former members confirmed that decision-making, child-rearing, dating practices, family life and conduct of daily life were all subject to the approval and direction of coordinators and 'pastoral leaders.' At times there was control of members' lives, including members' buying and selling of real estate, the location of homes, and employment.

"Elitism: The members felt called to special vocation and were to find salvation in and through the community. They were told that the world is evil, the church, its schools, seminaries and leader have gone soft, and that parishes were dead. When the dark days come, the community would save the church, [they were told]. Members felt they would be lost if they left the community which, they were told, is for the strong and the perfect. If members could not keep up the pace, they were shunned.

"Secrecy and privacy concerning community affairs: Many affairs indicated excessive secrecy on the part of the community. On the other hand, many members reported a violation of their right to privacy.

"Intrusion into family life: Many members were told how to dress, which spouse should do the various household chores, how to schedule their family life and how to control their children. Some wives complained that things said in confidence to their 'pastoral leader' were eventually conveyed to husbands.

"Fundamentalism: Servants of Christ the King community was directed and formed by the Sword of the Spirit, whose foundation course teaches an attitude toward the world that is not in conformity with church documents. The submission of members to pastoral leaders as taught in the Sword of the Spirit statement of community order is not in the spirit of the dignity and freedom of each individual Christian. The Servants looked to Sword of the Spirit rather than to the magisterium of the Catholic church for its teaching."

When in 1991 Martin apologized for the Ann Arbor-based Word of God community's excesses, Steve Clark, a Word of God leader with Martin, broke away to continue to lead the Sword of the Spirit movement.

"Lack of compassion: Former members stated that they were shunned when they failed or left the Servants, and their children were avoided at school by children who had once been their friends. Former members complained that when they needed assistance or support, they were neglected. Leaders were reluctant to lessen the tithe obligations of those in financial straits.

"Financial disclosures to the diocese of Steubenville: While there were no financial improprieties as such, the finances only of the Servants of Christ the King Fellowship (a parish within the larger community) and not of the community itself were revealed."

In March 1992, John P. Flaherty, a former founding member of the Steubenville community, wrote to Fidelity magazine that "the church needs to reflect on how it has cared for the needs of the charismatic renewal. For it almost seems that the church has stood back and allowed men with no legitimate claim to spiritual authority to make such claims, wielding tremendous power.

"While I don't believe the church should be a 'spiritual policeperson' (and I've been policed), I believe it would be appropriate to issue a warning to Catholics about the hazards of participation in groups that make such claims."

Flaherty continued, "I do not fault Bishop Ottenweller for a lack of oversight. He simply believed that former Servants senior coordinator Fr. Michael Scanlon was being honest with him. In [Ottenweller's] last letter to me, he reflected on our shared experience with Sword of the Spirit: 'We will be vigilant. I never again want to be any part of a system that does injury to the most sacred right of a human being.' "

Ottenweller had told the local Servants of Christ the King to separate from the Sword of the Spirit.

Flaherty wrote: "[Fr. Scanlon] through his position of leadership in the Catholic charismatic renewal, his vocation as a Franciscan priest and his successful presidency at Franciscan University had given the [Sword of the Spirit] the perception of credibility and legitimacy."

In the Washington archdiocese, when Cardinal Hickey inserted himself into the Mother of God community conflict, he was quite clear in his directives and criticisms.

Yet what is lacking in the covenant communities, said Kevin and Dorothy Franken, former members of the People of Hope community, is oversight.

Kevin Franken, a former religious, said, "If the church faces a shortage of priests and pastoral associates, the church doesn't just walk into a priestless parish and say, 'Oh, here, why don't you lead.' They're going to require somebody to have theological and pastoral training. Covenant communities do not.

"The church reviews the constitutions and bylaws. There's a change of leadership every six years in religious communities. These [charismatic] communities do not have that," he said.

NCR asked Fr. Francis Martin at the Mother of God community if there were warning signs that other covenant communities should watch for.

"I think that would be very hard to assess," he said, "in any group you should be listening to everybody, making sure [people feel] comfortable and are expressing themselves. Make sure you're in really good interaction with the responsible people in the diocese. Things like that."

Martin said those things were done "to a point" at Mother of God, "but they weren't done enough."

For more than a decade, Fr. Walter Debold of Seton Hall University was drawn into the fray of highly controlled group settings and cults. He has also listened to many who have left the People of Hope community in New Jersey. "Starting with Thomas Aquinas and on through Cardinal Joseph Cardijn [founder of the Young Catholic Workers] and the rest, I think [those leaders] gave us the procedure to follow: See, judge, act. I think bishops have to do the same thing," he said.

Debold said there are some "good and valuable functioning prayer groups. I can't deny that. There are many people who are very sincere and are not being manipulated. But there's a certain hazard.

"We have a lust for certitude," he said. And that, "combined with the characteristic of the times -- the problem of change -- a lot of times people will submit themselves to the guidance of someone who sounds like he speaks with authority. Many of these movements believe they are trying to save the church from itself."

Inside the covenant communities where authoritarian abuses occur, said Ray Dreitlein, a psychotherapist and former People of Hope member, the issue is power.

"Who has the power? How is it used on a day-to-day basis? When you have power in the hands of people that, number one, don't understand what they're doing," said Dreitlein, "then number two, in a lot of ways it becomes a narcissistic thing of how important they are. That's dangerous. The community was never wrong. The community never made a mistake. It was always people that made mistakes."

At Mother of God community, John O'Brien, current council chairman, said his advice to covenant communities was to maintain good and close ties with the diocese, "just be willing to work with them.

"Sometimes, because they're so busy, it is up to us to take the initiative for meetings," he said. "The [Mother of God] people are happy to find we're tied in more closely to church."

And Judith Tydings believes that lay people have a responsibility -- to educate, to warn and to prevent.

Tydings has been hurt by the covenant community experience, yet remains a strong defender of the graces to be gained from the charismatic renewal. When she urges the bishops to create their own study group, to examine the psychology of conversion, to explore how the church must deal with people abused in Catholic covenant communities so they don't lose their faith, she does it out of faith.

"There is something right about people wanting to follow God. The people in Opus Dei and elsewhere wouldn't be there if they hadn't had some kind of genuine conversion experience," she said. She added, "The church talks about conversion all the time, some kind of basic religious conversion, but where has it properly explained it or shown it understands it?"

And if the bishops do agree to study the issue, Tydings hopes they will study something else, too. Twenty years ago, in her book, Tydings made a plea that the bishops look at the theology of "baptism in the Spirit, the core experience of charismatic renewal."

Thousand upon thousands of Catholics find joy in that baptism.

Benedictine Fr. Dan Kirk belongs to a charismatic prayer group at St. Anselm's Abbey in Washington. He said, "I also belong to a covenant community -- the Benedictines. We've been in existence for 1,500 years. So who needs a prayer meeting? We pray five times a day." And yet, he said, when he attended his first charismatic prayer meeting 20 years ago he witnessed prayer that was uninhibited, "just natural, in the best sense of the word, in God's presence. That's what attracted me. I was hooked."

And many Catholics, hooked on the prayer meeting, are hooked further -- into covenant communities.

And on the basis of the past 15 years, it is only a matter of time before others become engaged in the kinds of excesses experienced at the Mother of God community.

Related story in The Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/longterm/library/mog/mogmain.htm

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 1997