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Legionaries’ tactics best left in a past era

In its long history, the Catholic church has accommodated endless variations on faith, piety and religious practice, so in many respects the religious order called the Legionaries of Christ, an authoritarian, secretive and militant group, has counterparts in the past. After all, this is a church in which, not so long ago, children barely into their teens were encouraged to separate from their families to enter religious training settings in which they were cut off from the outside world and from the opposite sex, subjected to rigorous academic and spiritual disciplines and ultimately sent out to lead and to serve communities of Catholics in the real world.

Like an ecclesiastical throwback team, the Legionaries have resurrected some of the old models, professing to be an army for Christ, highly disciplined and holding unity as the highest value. The order will tolerate no challenges to authority.

The Legionaries, acting out of presumptions of another era, are ambitious, apparently well funded, and have friends in high places in this papacy.

If the story about the takeover of The Donnellan School in Atlanta, covered on Page 3, were an isolated incident, it might not be worth a very long look. But the Legionaries have left evidence of a pattern of bullying across the country, of a willingness to set themselves up against existing Catholic institutions if necessary to achieve their ends, and of holding themselves above accountability to either parents or to the wider church.

In Atlanta, the Legion’s deep involvement in the school and the consequences of that involvement apparently were unclear to parents and staff until early this year, when Legion officials made it clear that a new agenda was in place. According to reports from former staff members, the Legion tried to force a principal to sign a document containing a provision to snitch on anyone who spoke ill of the Legion or its members. the order also allegedly made it clear to the former guidance counselor that she would report private conversations with children to the Legion priest in charge. Each said she refused to go along with those absurd conditions.

Those tactics notwithstanding, an even more alarming aspect to the story looms in the background -- the serious allegations of sexual abuse leveled by nine men against Legionaries founder Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado.

The accusers, many of them professionals currently working in responsible positions and including the former head of the Legionaries in the United States, are not after money or legal retribution. They simply want Maciel held accountable for his alleged actions, particularly since, in 1994, he was declared by Pope John Paul II to be an “efficacious guide to youth.” Maciel has refused to be interviewed. He has denied the allegations against him through a law firm. The church has apparently refused to investigate, instead bestowing further honors on him.

At the heart of the Legionaries operations is a dynamic disturbingly familiar to secretive, militant organizations bent on asserting and maintaining power. The order illustrates dramatically the difference between legitimate authority, which aims at helping others to grow, and authoritarianism, aimed at controlling others.

Some Catholics in Atlanta recognized an unhealthy use of authority -- an abuse of power -- and reacted in a rational and healthy way. Their first instinct, once they realized what was going on, was to protect their children. It is interesting to note that in Atlanta and elsewhere the reaction against Legionaries comes not just from progressive Catholics. The reaction against their tactics often has nothing to do with ideology but is more fundamentally human. Deceitful, secretive, controlling behavior does not sit well with healthy parents -- traditionalists or reformers -- who are first and foremost concerned with their children’s welfare.

It is a shame that the Catholic leader in Atlanta, Archbishop John F. Donoghue, is so tolerant of the Legionaries’ authoritarian bullying and so little concerned about the Atlanta Catholics, who had worked to develop an exemplary school, and about their children.

It is difficult to figure out where Donoghue comes down in this dispute. He is quick to hide behind the pope’s approval of the Legionaries and separates himself from responsibility for the sale of the school and its embarrassing aftermath.

At the same time, he has gone out of his way to open avenues into his archdiocese for the Legionaries and has publicly defended the order. Too bad he wasn’t leading the way in asking the tough questions the order should answer.

The Catholic parents and school faculty in Atlanta who decided not to acquiesce quietly are the ones providing leadership in this case. They have, as they intended, provided a warning to others.

National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2000