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Inside NCR

Our letters pages this week contain a wide sampling of reaction to our Nov. 3 cover story, “Hostile takeover,” on actions of the religious order, the Legion of Christ, in taking control of The Donnellan School in Atlanta.

Many of the letters echo the sentiments and language of a long “open letter” on the order’s Web site that alleges, among other points, that our story is unfair and incorrect and that Gerald Renner, the reporter who wrote the piece, is unreliable.

We have not responded earlier to the open letter because the Legion did not directly contact us about it. We did not receive a letter from the order. But the attack on the story and the Legion’s efforts to malign Renner are serious enough and are being widely enough circulated to warrant a response.

Renner, a journalist for 40 years and a specialist in religion reporting for 25 years, including 15 years for the Hartford (Conn.) Courant, has written a full response to the Legion’s letter that appears on our Web site: http://www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/documents/index.htm.

If you don’t have access to the Internet and want the response, call us and we’ll send you a printed version.

The length of both statements makes printing them in full prohibitive. The Legion statement can be found on the Web at www.legionofchrist.org.

But a few main points should be made here.

I asked Renner to take on the story when we began to receive calls from parents in Atlanta who were upset at what was happening to their school.

I asked him because he is a top-flight reporter, because his recent retirement made him available for freelance work and because he had done significant stories on the Legion in the past.

The Legion is upset with Renner because of those past stories. But apart from vilifying the messenger, they have provided little credible evidence disputing the stories, including one he did at the Courant about allegations that Legionary founder Fr. Marciel Maciel Degollado sexually abused seminarians (NCR, March 7, 1997). It would take far too long to go into details here, but I recommend you read Renner’s full response. The church and the order may choose to ignore the allegations and, instead, spend their energy trying to impugn the messenger, but serious questions remain.

In the case of the school in Atlanta, the Legion makes it appear that NCR took a cavalier approach to the story, did little checking and refused to approach anyone who might have something good to say about the order.

Those assertions are simply false.

Renner conducted extensive phone interviews with many of the parties involved. We sent him to Atlanta to better understand the situation and to try to get face-to-face interviews with Legion members, supporters and Archbishop John F. Donoghue, who is solidly behind the Legion. No one on the Legion side, including officials of the order, the school and the archbishop, would speak to NCR. The only one who would speak was Matthew S. Coles, lawyer for both the school and the archdiocese.

When the Legion learned that NCR indeed was going to publish a story, a spokesman called from national headquarters in Connecticut, complaining that we had not talked to anyone who supported the order’s activities in Atlanta.

Though we had already made attempts to contact those with a favorable view, we held up the story and, to accommodate the order’s wishes, contacted people they recommended as sources friendly to their cause.

It is telling, as Renner recounts, that one of the folks recommended by the Legion refused to speak to him, saying she would speak only after consulting with Legion leadership. When finally the supporters recommended by the Legion felt free to speak, we incorporated their comments.

We never expected the Legion to use this story in their recruiting materials, and we can understand their wish to portray the order in a more kindly light than it appears in the story. But Renner did his work well, and NCR went out of its way to make sure all sides were represented.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, December 15, 2000