By NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press
VATICAN CITY (AP) _ 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 say they suffered at the hands of counselors barely older than themselves at the Rhode Island school. For some, the trauma required years of psychological therapy that cost them tens of thousands of dollars.
A copy of the letter was provided to The Associated Press by the letter’s 77 signatories, a dozen of whom agreed to be interviewed about their personal problems for the sake of warning parents against sending their children to the program’s schools in the U.S., Mexico and Spain.
“I have many defining and traumatic memories that I believe epitomize the systematic breakdown of the person” in the school, Mary told The Associated Press in an email exchange. She developed anorexia after joining in 1998, weighed less than 85 pounds when she left and dropped to 68 pounds before beginning to recover at home. “The feelings of worthlessness, shame and isolation that are associated with those memories are still vivid and shocking.”
Mary, who asked that her last name not be used, blamed her eating disorder on acute loneliness– girls were prevented from making close friends or confiding in their families– and the tremendous pressure she felt as a 16-year-old to perfectly obey the strictest rules dictating how she should walk, sit, pray and eat.
It’s 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 is all the more grave because 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 that he had sexually abused his seminarians.
Pope Benedict XVI took over the Mexico-based order in 2010 and appointed envoy Cardinal Velasio De Paolis to oversee a whole-scale reform of the Legion and its lay branch Regnum Christi. But the reform hasn’t progressed smoothly, with defections from disillusioned members and criticism that some superiors remain locked in their old ways.
The all-girl Immaculate Conception Academy, located in Wakefield, Rhode Island opened two decades ago to serve as a feeder program for the Legion’s female consecrated branch, where more than 700 women around the world live like nuns making promises of poverty, chastity and obedience, teaching in Legion-run schools and running youth programs.
Because of dwindling enrollment– 14 seniors graduated last month– the school recently merged with a Legion-run school in Michigan; in Mexico two programs merged into one that produced 10 graduates this year.
The school’s current director said things have changed dramatically recently and many of the spiritual and psychological abuses corrected. But she acknowledged the harm done, apologized for the women’s suffering and asked for forgiveness.
“For any errors made by our order in the past, we do apologize,” said director Margarita Martinez. “We are sorry these young women have suffered and been harmed in any way.”
In an email response to AP, Martinez noted that not all students experienced the same “level of negativity” as those who wrote the letter, and that regardless the movement was listening to everyone’s experiences as it undergoes a process of Vatican-mandated reform.
Megan Coelho, 30, recalled how pairs of consecrated women would visit her regularly as a child in northern California where she was homeschooled; they told her tales of the wonderful high school in Rhode Island where she might find a vocation and grow closer to God. Coelho, who wanted to be a nun, left home when she was 14 to join.
By junior year, the occasional migraines she had suffered became frequent and debilitating as pressure to conform to the rules and highly structured schedule increased. The migraines would paralyze one side of her body, making her collapse at times. She developed facial tics. Her eyesight became blurry.
“As sweet as they (her consecrated directors) were I was counseled not to tell my parents about it because then my parents would take me home,” she said, referring to the movement’s goal of keeping members at almost any cost. “No one contacted my family. Nobody took me to the ER or got me a doctor’s appointment.”
Eventually, Coelho got so sick she returned home, and the migraines stopped. Feeling better she returned, only to suffer a migraine her first day back. She left for good six months before graduation.
Coehlo’s story is the first on a blog she and other former pre-candidates, as the girls were known, started this past spring, a seemingly cathartic experience since many had never shared their pain with their onetime classmates. The blog, http://www.49weeks.blogspot.com , is an astonishing read _ testimony of a twisted and cruel methodology applied to girls at their most vulnerable age, when even under normal circumstances girls are prone to self-esteem issues, peer pressure and bouts of depression.
Instead of finding support from friends and family, these teenagers were isolated from their families 49 weeks a year, told to unquestioningly trust their spiritual directors and confide only in them. Obedience to the minutest of rules, they were taught, reflected their acceptance of God’s will.
They write about their feelings of inadequacy, humiliation and loneliness, and of idolizing their smiling consecrated counselors. They paint the depths of their depression when seemingly overnight they were told they didn’t have a vocation and should go home.
“Looking back, I was suicidal,” said Sarita Duffy, now a 28-year-old mother of three in Fort Cambpbell, Kentucky. “I never took a bottle of pills or slit my wrists, but I was fully content with the possibility of never waking up again.”
In a phone interview, Duffy said she equated being rejected by the movement with being rejected by God, and lost her Catholic faith for years as a result. She acknowledged she can’t blame the movement for all her problems but said the “zero self-worth” she felt after being rejected precipitated her descent into depression and rebellion.
“Why do you hate me God? I hate me,” Duffy wrote in her journal on June 10, 2002, four years after she entered as a freshman and about a week before she received the final “no” to work in the movement’s missionary program.
One of the blog entries was written by Lourdes Martinez, a former counselor or formator at the school from 2000-2005.
She admitted that she and her consecrated colleagues would classify the girls into potential leaders, “normals” and those who should be sent home. This would enable the directors and counselors under them to manipulate the girls and prey on their vulnerabilities, giving special attention to those they wanted to keep as potential consecrated leaders and devise strategies to get rid of those they wanted to send home, she said.
Often, information from the weekly reports written about each girl’s development would be shared with the priests who heard her confession– a striking violation of privacy. The priests could then reinforce the directors’ decisions in confession with the girls, she said.
“So she’s hearing this from everyone and thinks it’s the Holy Spirit talking. And we would say `Yes, of course,”’ Martinez told the AP in a phone interview from Monterrey, Mexico.
Martinez described an almost “Lord of the Flies”-like situation in which the counselors were barely older than the girls under their care, with no experience in adolescent development. The counselors themselves lived with the fear that they must obey the rules and their superiors or risk violating God’s will.
Martinez signed the letter to De Paolis because she wanted to show solidarity with those who suffered. But she stressed that she believes the reform will work because she knows and trusts the new leadership and is working with them to improve.
Not everyone suffered so much, and not everyone has joined the call to close the program; of the 270-odd people on a closed Facebook group that served as the basis for the blog, 77 signed the letter.
And by many indications, things have changed dramatically for the better at the school, with girls allowed more time with families and much less emphasis on sticking to the rules.
“People who are going into the pre-candidacy and are starting out will not find the same experience as those people did,” said Sasha Jurchak, 25, who left consecrated life in May because she simply decided it wasn’t for her _ not because of any problem with the program.
In an interview, she noted that De Paolis has instituted new regulations that forbid consecrating girls as young as 18 after a six-week candidacy program. The new rules require a years-long process of assessment similar to that of traditional religious orders. Recruitment is no longer the primary aim, she said. The girls’ mail is no longer screened and they have more free time. Girls can wear shorts and pants for athletic activities instead of long skirts and stockings.
Margarita Martinez, the school director, said other changes include better reflection from counselors on when to invoke “God’s will” in requiring something of the girls.
She disputed claims that the school failed to provide adequate medical care for sick girls, saying the policy has always been to notify parents and get proper care.
Asked if Regnum Christi was prepared to provide financial assistance to women who needed psychological counseling when they left, she said each case would need to be considered individually.
“The reform process has taken time. It has been a learning process for everyone involved. And we still have a long way to go,” she wrote. “But I strongly believe we are moving in the right direction, with the Holy Spirit as our guide.”
The letter to De Paolis from alumni said it’s too risky to wait and see how it all turns out.
“Today’s girls deserve more than to be guinea pigs during the experimental stages of the reform process which may or may not prove in the end to be authentic,” it concluded.
Regnum Christi is at http://www.regnumchristi.org
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(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)