Victim says Legion lied to police about her abuse

Legion falsely told police the victim didn’t want a criminal investigation;
classified criminal sexual abuse as “boundary violations”

By Damien Fisher
The Legionaries of Christ have published a list of credibly accused priests, and they claim they are open to hearing testimony from more survivors of abuse. But what happens when a victim does contact them with a complaint?  Are the allegations taken seriously? How accurate is their list? Do they tell the truth to law enforcement about allegations of criminal abuse?

Ashley (not her real name) thought she could help the Church when she made the agonizing decision to come forward in 2015 and tell authorities about the sexual abuse she suffered from a Legionaries of Christ priest as a middle schooler in the 1990s.

“I wanted to protect anyone he might still be hurting,” she said.

In September of 2015, Ashley and her attorney, Tom Brandt, met with Legion priest Fr. Peter Hopkins and another Legion priest to formally report that the Legion priest assigned to the Highlands, a private Legion school she attended in the Dallas area, repeatedly groomed and molested her in the confessional. The abuse she suffered, as she described it, rises to the level of a criminal offense. But when the diocese released its list of credibly accused abusers last year, Ashley’s abuser wasn’t on it, and he wasn’t on the list the Legion published in December.

Both the Legion officials we spoke to and the Dallas officials we contacted called the criminal abuse “boundary violations.”

Dallas Diocesan Chancellor Mary Edlund, who used that phrase in a letter to Child Protective Services, was not at the meeting. “The diocese refused to send a representative to our meeting,” Ashley said.  

Ashley thought coming forward would protect other young girls. She thought that reporting her abuse would alarm the Church, pushing them to investigate further, root out corruption, and reform the Legion. She expected someone to pursue her abuser.

“I was an optimist,” she said. 

When Ashley saw the records, she realized the Legion apparently lied to police about her case, and about her alleged abuser. 

“They really are not reformed,” she said.

Ashley agreed to tell us her story on the condition of anonymity. The alleged abuser has yet to be criminally charged, and so we are withholding his identity at this time. He has not responded to our requests for an interview. According to the information we have obtained, he is no longer a priest. He is the subject of an active police investigation, as recently as last month. 

Ashley went through years of self-doubt, guilt, and shame before she finally came forward. For years after her abuse, she didn’t understand that what she had endured was abuse.

“I didn’t realize there was a crime committed,” she said.

“If your mom asks what you are doing in here, tell her ‘spiritual direction,” the priest said.

The priest spent months grooming her when she was a middle school student at the Highlands, mostly in the confessional. The assaults took place in 1993 or 1994, around the time Ashley was 12 to 13 years old, according to the statement she gave to the Legion, to the Dallas Diocese, and eventually to police. The priest was a family relation of school officials, and he celebrated mass and heard the confessions of the students, according to her statement. The Highlands School in Irving is a private pre-K through grade 12 school that is part of the Regnum Christi network of schools. Regnum Christi is the lay apostolate of the Legion. 

Ashley was going to confession every two to four weeks during this time, usually after school. After one confession, she went around the confessional to thank the priest, and that is when he first forced her to sit on his lap, she said in her statement.

“He somehow pulled me down into his lap. He did not verbally ask me if I wanted to sit in his lap, but somehow I ended up there,” she said in her statement. 

Ashley was made to feel she had a “special friendship,” with the priest who obligated her to sit in his lap after each confession. Sometimes he would stand and embrace her, and whisper things into her ear, she said. 

“At one point while embracing me, whispering and nuzzling my hair he said ‘If your mom asks what you are doing in here, tell her ‘spiritual direction,’” Ashley said in her statement. “I assumed that he was telling me the truth, that this was in fact spiritual direction.”

That spiritual direction seemed to be taking a different course during her last confession, she said in her statement.

“The last time I remember confessing to him, afterward while embracing me he pressed his body up against me. I could feel his erection touching me through his cassock,” she said in her statement. “I was very uncomfortable with this and had no frame of reference for what was happening or how to respond. So I did nothing and after several minutes he was done embracing me and I left the confessional.”

Ashley started going to a different priest for confession after that, and her alleged abuser cooled toward her in their interactions outside the confessional, she said. In one instance she tried to give him a hug when there were other people around, and he brushed her off. 

“I was hurt and couldn’t understand why his behavior was so different in public,” she said in her statement. “After that I decided that he must have decided that I wasn’t his friend anymore, and to avoid awkwardness I did not return to confession with him.”

It wasn’t until years later, when she had children of her own, that she realized what had happened, and that her alleged abuser had been grooming her and encouraging her to lie to her mother about what they were doing alone.

Legion and Archdiocese both soft pedal criminal abuse allegation 

When she was ready to tell her story in 2015, Ashley got an attorney and  informed the Dallas diocese and then the Legion that she had been abused. With her attorney she pressed these Church officials to contact police, and to contact the Child Protective Services about the priest. She wanted to see some justice done. 

“I did tell the diocese and then the Legion that a police report needed to be filed, and if they did not file one, then I would,” she said.

A report was made to the Texas Child Protective Services department by Dallas Diocesan Chancellor Mary Edlund. The letter Edlund sent provides only scant details from Ashley’s story, and Edlund downplays Ashley’s encounters with the alleged abuser.

“Although this does not appear to be something which must technically be reported to your office, I am doing so out of an abundance of caution,” Edlund wrote.

A Legion priest spoke to police October of 2015. The name of the priest making the report is redacted throughout the police report we obtained, but he is described as the “head priest” at The Highlands at the time. His account to the police is full of inaccurate statements. 

The head priest also downplayed Ashley’s story when he spoke to police. He said it was some “inappropriate” behavior by a former priest at the Highlands. He also told police that Ashley “recalled within her statement feeling what she thought was an erection.”

Legion falsely claimed victim did not want criminal investigation

Strikingly, the Legion priest making the report told police that Ashley did not want to pursue criminal charges.

“According to [the head priest] during his meeting with [Ashley] she didn’t detail that she wanted to pursue any charges,” the police report states. 

Ashley said after reading the report that she realized the priest didn’t tell the truth to police about her meeting with the Legion. When she reported the abuse to Legion priests, she told them she did want a legal investigation pursued, but indicated to them she was not interested in pursuing a lawsuit against the Church.

“I stated in the meeting with Tom Brandt and the Legionaries that my intent in bringing this forward was justice, accountability, and protection of future victims, and that to that end I wanted to see that things were properly reported on the civil and ecclesiastical side, as well as to know that I had done what I could to prevent future victims at his hands,” she said during follow up questions we asked her.

At no time did she state to Legion officials that she did not want to pursue criminal charges, she said. She told them she wanted an investigation. We have made several attempts to speak to her then-attorney, but he has so far declined our requests for comment.

Legion falsely claims there were no other allegations against priest

Further, during the October 2015 police report the unnamed Legion priest made to police, he told the investigators that there were no other allegations against the alleged abuser. 

“I asked if there were any other allegations against [the alleged abuser], and [the head priest] stated that no other complaints or reports had been made against [the alleged abuser]” the police report states.

Ashley said that’s not true. She said that the Legion priests she met with, along with her attorney, also claimed that she was the only person to claim abuse at the hands of her alleged abuser. She said she knows now of at least one former Highlands student who had been abused.

“That’s what I thought was so crazy,” she said. “I don’t remember their exact words, but they definitely said something to the effect that this is the first that we’ve heard of him having issues. I knew that wasn’t true.”

We contacted Legion spokeswoman Gail Gore last year, and she said that Ashley’s case is one of a “boundary violation” and not sexual abuse. Gore has not responded to our recent request to discuss the specifics of this case, including questions about what the Legion told police. 

Not on any list

Ashley’s alleged abuser is nowhere to be found either on the Dallas list of credibly accused priests, or on the Legion list, because he is considered to have committed a “boundary violation.” According to the Legion’s own code of conduct, put out in 2019, a boundary violation is “an infraction of the Code of Conduct that is significant, but does not rise to the level of sexual abuse of a minor or sexual misconduct with an adult.” 

After she made her report, Ashley never heard from investigators with the police or the CPS as she expected. Instead, a representative with Praesidium contacted her. Praesidium is the outside firm that the Legion hired to conduct a child safety audit and to help develop its code of conduct. 

The Legion, which was founded by notorious sexual predator Fr. Marciel Maciel, claims that there are only four credibly accused priests or brothers in all of North America, following their own in-house investigation. However, the order claimed in December when it released the investigative report that there may be more information about “boundary violations” made public at some point in the future.

“In November 2018 we also asked Praesidium to conduct a full review of all our territorial files, this should be finalized soon. Should new information arise we will update the list accordingly. The list does not reflect unsubstantiated claims, open investigations or boundary violations. We are in the process of reviewing our policy on when and how we communicate about boundary violations,” it said in a statement.

After Ashley came forward, her report apparently hit a dead end. She did eventually get a letter from Fr. John Connor, then the Legion’s territorial director for North America, in May of 2016, six months after the police report. He apologized to her for the “boundary violation.” Connor’s letter indicates the Legion took it upon itself to see an “investigation” was done into her allegation. The Legion apparently concluded that the appropriate response to their investigation was an apology, and no more, because what had happened to Ashley wasn’t technically abuse.

“As you know, the Legion asked the safe environment firm Praesidium to investigate. They found what you said very compelling. They concluded that it was clearly a very sad violation of boundaries, totally unbecoming of a priest,” Connor wrote. 

That would have been the end of it, until May of last year.

Raid on Dallas diocese brings Ashley’s case back to life

Ashley’s case came alive again shortly after Dallas police raided the Dallas diocesan offices as part of an effort to uncover information police say was hidden from investigators. 

According to the Dallas Morning News: “The Dallas Police Department’s Child Exploitation Unit last year (in 2018) assigned Detective David Clark, a 20-year veteran, to the full-time job of looking into cases of sex abuse involving minors within the local diocese.

After Clark felt stonewalled by the diocese and its lawyers for months — issues he detailed in a search-warrant affidavit — police officers and FBI agents seized files from the Dallas diocese Wednesday as part of the ongoing investigation into sex abuse allegations.”

In the weeks after the Dallas raid, Ashley contacted Dallas police with her story. Soon, investigators sought her out for an interview about what had happened to her at The Highlands. The police wanted to know if she knew of other victims. She did.

“They told me they are building a case against [the alleged abuser], and they have met in person with another woman who was one grade ahead of me, but was there at the same time,” she said.

We have confirmed that police were investigating Ashley’s alleged abuser as recently as January and are looking to build a case for prosecution against him. 

Connor is no longer the North American territorial director, but is now the superior for the worldwide order. He was announced as the next superior for the Legion last month, and soon stories came to light in which Connor, as territorial director, allegedly mishandled a case of “boundary violations” involving a Legion priest, according to the Catholic News Agency.

“The Legion paid them off. I’m free to speak.”

Ashley said she throughout the course of the ordeal in reporting her abuse, she has actually met many good Legion priests. She’s also met many victims of Legion abuse, victims who are not willing or able to come forward.

“I know far too many people who have stories to tell, but they can’t tell them because they signed a non disclosure agreement because they desperately needed the money and the Legion paid them off,” she said. “I’m free to speak.”

An Italian court case alleges that victims have been paid off and told to not tell their stories, or in some cases to lie about what happened. The family of a Legion victim was reportedly offered 15,000 euros in exchange for the recanting his testimony against his abuser, according to Crux.

Though there are Legion priests she respects, Ashley knows what a Legion priest did to her, even if the Legion continues to minimize the criminal abuse she survived by calling it a “boundary violation.” Now that she has seen how the Legion seemingly covered up her abuse, she is ready to see the order die. 

“I would like to see the order suppressed,” she said. “I don’t think this is a legitimate order, but some of the vocations might be legitimate. Highlands should not be in my diocese, and I would like to see the Legion not be in my diocese and not be anywhere.”

BREAKING: Fulton Sheen beatification postponed

The beatification of Fulton Sheen has been postponed. Originally scheduled for Dec. 21 of this year after a protracted legal battle over his remains, the beatification has been put on hold “at the request of a few members of the Bishop’s Conference who have asked for further consideration,” according to a Dec. 3 statement from the diocese of Peoria.

“In our current climate, it is important for the faithful to know that there has never been, nor is there now, any allegation against Sheen involving the abuse of a minor,” the statement said.

Peter Jesserer Smith, a reporter for the National Catholic Register, said on Twitter:

“The Vatican will have potentially a year’s worth of lawsuits, with depositions and court findings of fact, to sift through. This is the ultimate test of Sheen’s beatification: either he’ll be stained by the abuse crisis, or the vindication of his holiness will shine like the sun.”

In July of 2019, a blog and some chatter on Twitter referenced an unsourced allegation that Sheen walked in on a priest abusing a female child, but that he merely told the priest to put his pants back on, called the victim a “slut,” and proceeded to help cover up the crime.  My husband and I made a thorough assessment of the credibility the accusation and its sources. We concluded that the allegation and sources, according to all available information, were not credible. In fact, there was considerable reason to doubt that any victim had even actually made an allegation. Essentially, there was a rumor, spread by un-credible sources, that there had been an allegation; there is no evidence of a victim, and there is nothing to investigate. 

The rumor also claimed that the Cause for Sheen’s canonization knew about the allegations and did not respond to them. But Monsignor Soseman, who was delegated by Bishop Jenky to oversee the Cause, told us “no such letter [as the one described in the allegations] ever arrived at the office in Peoria,  nor have I ever heard of any such allegation, in any of the extensive testimonies we took.”

Read our investigation of the rumored allegations

In its statement today, the Diocese of Peoria said:

“the life of Fulton Sheen has been thoroughly and meticulously investigated. At every state, it has been demonstrated definitively that he was an exemplary model of Christian conduct and a model of leadership in the Church. At no time has his life of virtue ever been called into question.”

In the statement, it says that the Bishop of Peoria, Bishop Daniel Jenky, was “informed by the Holy See” that the beatification would be postponed. 

 

The Peoria statement says:

“Since a few members of the Bishop’s Conference have requested a delay, the Diocese of Peoria remains confident that Archbishop Sheen’s virtuous conduct will only be further demonstrated. Bishop Jenky has ever confidence that any additional examination will only further prove Fulton Sheen’s worthiness of Beatification and Canonization. The Diocese of Peoria has no doubt that Fulton Sheen, who brought so many souls to Jesus Christ in his lifetime, will be recognized as a model of holiness and virtue.”

The statement says: “Bishop Jenky is deeply saddened by this decision. In particular, Bishop Jenky is even more concerned for the many faithful who are devoted to Sheen and will be affected by this news.”

Read my interview with Bonnie Engstrom, the mother of the boy who returned to health after his heart stopped beating for sixty-one minutes, and his parents prayed to Fulton Sheen. 

The statement continues: 
[Bishop Jenky] is firmly convinced of the great holiness of the Venerable Servant of God and remains confident that Sheen will be beatified. Bishop Jenky has every intention of continuing the Cause, but no further date for Beatification has been discussed.”

The Diocese of Peoria is not offering any more information at this time. 

 

 

The Church is someone, not something

The internet will teach you how to turn a “no” into a “yes.” The phrase  appears in tutorials designed for salespeople, but also in more sinister contexts.  In militant men’s rights groups, there are forums and even study guides that teach men how to manipulate women and extract the sexual goodies they want from them.

They understand that, in these whacky times, women may pursue legal prosecution for rape or assault if you don’t listen to their “no;” so men who consider sex a right coach each other on how to pressure, manipulate, disorient, confuse, and guilt women into yielding a reluctant but legally watertight “yes.” Rather than being ashamed of this gross display of inhumanity, these men preen themselves on their skills. They know that, if they are challenged for their behavior, they can point to their victim’s coerced consent, and then she will be blamed for what happened to her.

Healthy men would vomit at the very idea of approaching a woman this way. No man enjoys rejection, but they do understand that women are human, and shouldn’t be treated like an object whose body and will can be forced into whatever position you like. No means no. You don’t have to like it, but you do have to accept it.

I’ve heard this approach before, in an entirely different context. I’ve heard this refrain of “I hear your ‘no,’ but I refuse to accept it, and I even feel proud of my persistence. So I’m going to keep chipping away at you with everything I’ve got in hopes that you’ll give in and let me have what I think I’m entitled to.”

Here’s what I hear:

“All the other churches go along with this stuff, so why won’t you? What’s wrong with you? Why are you so uptight?”

“Of course I love you, Catholicism! That’s why I want to see you change.”

“No one can possibly love you, you Catholic Church, if you keep on acting this way. I’m the only one who could put up with you, and you better give in, or I’ll leave, too.”

It’s the language of Catholic dissenters — including myself, at times, to my shame. It’s the language of people who have heard her say “no” very clearly — “no” to contraception, “no” to women priests, “no” to gay sex. But they love her, they say, so they just keep chipping away, threatening, negging, pressuring and wheedling, priding themselves on their persistence in trying to wear her defenses down, to turn her “no” into a “yes.”

When we hear pressure and threats from a would-be rapist who clearly despises women as much as he craves their companionship, it’s easy to see these tactics for what they are: Abuse. An abuser allows himself to speak this way because he doesn’t really recognize the humanity of his victim. He sees her primarily as something that could potentially deliver what he wants, if only she would know her place and cooperate with his demands. He sees her primarily as a thing, and not as a person.

I am here to tell you that the Catholic Church is a person. It is the Body of Christ. And the Body of Christ has a right to her bodily autonomy. She is not here to assume whatever position will satisfy our current appetites, whether they’re intellectual or spiritual or psychological or social. The Church is Someone, not something, and she has the right to say “no.”

Now let me make some disclaimers, because I know I’ve said something tough to hear.

When I talk about people pressuring the Church to change, I’m not talking about people who are sincerely struggling, even angrily struggling, bitterly struggling, fearfully struggling with some of the hard teachings of the faith. Healthy relationships have struggles. I struggle, sometimes angrily or bitterly or fearfully, with some fundamental teachings of the Church, just as my own beloved husband almost certainly struggles with some of the things that make me fundamentally me. It’s not always easy being in love. So I’m not saying that struggling with doctrine is abuse. Struggle is normal, and struggling with the Church does not make us abusers.

And more importantly, I’m not saying that the Church is not in need of change. God knows it is badly in need. Sometimes there are things about your beloved that ought to change, and insisting on that change sometimes truly is an act of love. Many loving spouses will eventually find occasion to hold their beloved to account for intolerable behaviors which must be changed if the marriage can survive; and so it it is with faithful Catholics and the Church. Wanting to reform what is wrong in the Church does not make us abusers.

Does the Church need reform? Oh literally sweet Jesus, yes. The hierarchy and much of its pastoral authority is deformed almost beyond recognition. They don’t even seem to realize that they have lost our trust and need to work to regain it. There are abusers in power. There are structures in place that make it impossible to hold abusers and their enablers to account. There are too many ways to keep horrible secrets; too many places for abusers to hide. God’s word is used to shout down victims and their defenders and to amplify hypocrites, opportunists, and predators. This is the state of the Church today. These are the things that must, please God, change.

But these grotesqueries, these deformations, are not who the Church herself is. They are like parasites living off the Body of Christ. They fight like mad to preserve their host, not because they love her, but because they need their daily feeds. They must be scoured away so that the body of Christ can be pure again. I don’t know how, but I see it must be done.

But there is change, and there is change. If we want to preserve our loving relationship with the Body of Christ and not unwittingly fall into patterns of abuse against her, we must learn to make the distinction between who the Church is, and what her members and her representatives do — what they have done, in fact, to her. The latter must often be changed; the former is inviolable.

We can learn who the Church is by what she teaches, what she says. And sometimes, what she says is “no.” This is inviolable. She is inviolable.

Lately, we have perhaps become used to thinking of the Church as the abuser. So many people have been maligned, mistreated, guilted, shamed, or literally raped by those who call themselves the Church. But we must see clearly. Those who abuse and enable abuse in the name of Christ are not the Church; they are to the Church as a pimp is to a sex slave. They will defend her, not because they love her, but because she brings them power and money. They are the ones who must repent and reform, not her. She is the victim. She is not the one who needs to change. The Church is a person, and she has the right to say “no,” both to those who abuse her outright, and to those who want to blame her for being abused.

We will not purify the Body of Christ by attacking what and who she is, and that includes what she says. No means no. Like anyone whose demands have been rejected, we don’t have to like it, but we do have to accept it, especially if we say you love the Church. She is someone, not something. When she says “no,” she means “no.”

 

Image: detail of photo by Stefano Merli via Flickr (Creative Commons)