Dear friends, Christ's peace.
The tabloid-style cover story of the November 3 National Catholic Reporter is an attack on the Legionaries of Christ and the schools affiliated or associated with us. We want the public to know the background behind this attack so that if you hear it discussed you can respond with the truth.
It is a long and very biased article that touches on a number of issues. First, let us provide you some background that can put it in perspective.
A reliable reporter?
The reporter writing the story, Gerald Renner, retired from the Hartford Courant in April 2000. While writing for the Courant Mr. Renner wrote several attacks on the Archbishop of Hartford and on the Legionaries.
In one article Mr. Renner alleged that the Legionaries seminary was run like a boot camp; he told the harrowing tale of two men who supposedly had to escape in secret in order to leave. One of these men wrote to the Legion and the Courant to say how ridiculous and insulting he found the article. The other, who was 31 at the time, remained in contact on good terms with the Legion after he left. Other ex-seminarians have told us they were contacted by Mr. Renner but as soon as they had something positive to say of the Legion the interview was ended. None of them were ever quoted or referred to in Mr. Renner's articles.
Mr. Renner told us he was hired by the National Catholic Reporter in late August to do a story on Legionary schools. His editor at the National Catholic Reporter told us Mr. Renner submitted his story for publication on Wednesday, October 25, but the editor found the story included no comment from any Legionaries and no comment from any of the vast majority of supportive families involved in our schools. Fr. Owen Kearns LC called the editor to ask for fair treatment; some of Fr. Owen's comments are quoted in the story. Mr. Renner then contacted a Legionary spokesman, Jay Dunlap, Communications Director, on Thursday October 26, scant hours before going to press. Asked if he would interview supportive families, Mr. Renner said he would have to speak with them within the hour because he was facing a deadline. This after two months of working on the story but contacting the Legionaries only as an after-thought. Hardly professional. Mr. Renner's editor conducted the interviews with the supportive parents, adding their quotes at the last minute.
In the article Mr. Renner repeatedly refers to the Legionaries as "secretive." How ironic that a reporter who did not approach the Legionaries' national offices for comment until after he had submitted his story for publication should accuse the Legionaries of being secretive. We regret that the National Catholic Reporter published Mr. Renner's story with a screaming front-page headline in spite of its glaring omissions and distortion of the facts.
The story primarily involves a situation at The Donnellan School in Atlanta. This school was started a few years ago as an independent Catholic school. Its founders soon sought affiliation with a religious order to safeguard its future. In June of 1999 the Archbishop of Atlanta announced in a letter to all Donnellan families that he was delighted the Legionaries accepted the offer to affiliate with the school.
In mid-September 2000, four administrators and staff members of The Donnellan School lost their jobs. While the Legionaries and the school are unable to comment on the personnel issues involved because of privacy and legal concerns, it is significant that, as stated by Mr. Renner, the National Catholic Reporter was contacted to do a negative story in August -- weeks before anyone lost a job.
Many of the families and faculty members who left have since started a new school called Atlanta Academy, a "nondenominational Christian school." News reports about the Donnellan situation have revealed that many of these families viewed Donnellan and the Legion as "too Catholic." While we regret that they have left the school, it is their right not to share the Legionaries vision for Catholic education nor the explicit, published mission of The Donnellan School.
There has been much misinformation passed around about the affiliation process and the Legionaries of Christ. An unfortunate number of families have fallen prey to this misinformation, which is rehashed in the National Catholic Reporter's anti-Legionary story. Some of the details are simply fictitious. For instance, Mr. Renner cites unattributed third-hand hearsay that The Donnellan School's first principal left because she learned of a pending Legionary affiliation. That is absolutely impossible because the Legionary affiliation was not even considered until after she announced she would leave.
The overriding problem with the story is that its very premise is flawed. It argues that the Legionaries make a practice of taking over schools that others have worked to start. The fact is that Donnellan is a rarity among Legionary affiliates precisely because nearly all schools connected with us incorporate the Legionary philosophy of education from the very beginning. Most of these schools start with the hope that as they grow and as the Legionaries ordain more priests, with the permission from ecclesiastical authorities they will eventually have a full-time Legionary presence, as is gradually happening. Mr. Renner learned these facts only after he had written his story, and so he was unable to completely rewrite his story and meet his approaching deadline. It is apparent, however, that Mr. Renner was not as interested in the truth as in advancing his anti-Legionary agenda.
Moreover, please note that The Donnellan School went looking for a religious order with which to affiliate and chose the Legionaries over other good possibilities. There was no takeover. The Legionaries were invited in with the consent of the Archbishop.
Donnellan was started as an independent Catholic school by a pastor, Monsignor Edward Dillon, with the help of lay friends. After the school had been in existence for a few years, Monsignor Dillon, The Donnellan School Board of Trustees, and Archbishop John Donoghue of Atlanta sought a religious order to ensure the Catholic character and academic excellence of the school well into the future. They were pleased that the Legionaries accepted the opportunity. Archbishop Donoghue announced the affiliation in a letter to all Donnellan parents in June of 1999, when the affiliation first happened.
Old-fashioned and Militaristic
Mr. Renner's caricature of the Legionaries suggests that they are regimented and militaristic, a throwback to the pre-Vatican II Church. He describes Regnum Christi members, the lay people who share the Legionaries enterprising spirituality, as submissive robots willing to leap at any Legionary's call.
The fact is the Legionaries call to form lay apostles who help build the Church is recognized as one of the prophetic new movements in the Church that foretold Vatican II's call for a more active laity. Fr. Maciel, founder of the Legionaries and Regnum Christi, developed his vision for lay-clergy collaboration two decades before the Council convened. Pope John Paul II has recognized Regnum Christi as one of the new movements that are a sign of the new springtime of evangelisation foretold by the Second Vatican Council.
Mr. Renner accurately describes the Legionaries and Regnum Christi as militant but completely misconstrues the ancient meaning of the term as it applies to Christians. The Church militant describes the people of God fulfilling the command to make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19). The weapon is charity in all things. Mr. Renner completely distorts the meaning of the Legionaries' commitment to charity by making it sound as if itīs merely a tool for muting dissent. In fact charity is a profound challenge that Christ presents to all of us, and the Legionaries strive to practice it even in the face of unjust attacks.
Another disturbing part of the article is Mr. Renner's assertion that the Legionaries break up families by holding separate retreats for men and women and recruiting teenage boys to attend a special school for potential priests. First of all, it is conventional for nearly any weekend-long retreat to be single sex because of sleeping arrangements. More significantly, regarding the apostolic school for boys who may have a priestly vocation: families send their sons to the apostolic school because they see the need in today's culture for a special environment in which a vocation can grow. These families report that, despite any physical distance, they actually grow closer to their sons through graces shared in prayer and in deeply personal and spiritual letters.
As our parents know from experience, we see our purpose as supporting them in their role as the primary educators and primary teachers of the faith. Anything contrary to good parenting is absolutely contrary to the Legionaries mission in education.
Mr. Renner's article inaccurately names Oaklawn Academy in Edgerton, Wisconsin, as an apostolic school. The only apostolic school in the United States right now is in New Hampshire.
Academics Versus Piety
The article alleges that academics suffer in Legionary-affiliated schools because there's too much emphasis on religious practice. Families in our schools know nothing could be further from the truth. Our outstanding scores on standardized tests are proof enough. But our families also know the effect of our positive approach to discipline, which results in very few distractions and far more time for studies.
Obedience to Bishops
Mr. Renner raises the question of obedience to bishops in the context of schools in dioceses where the bishop has not invited in the Legionaries, such as Milwaukee. With the help of National Consultants for Education (NCE), such schools can implement the Legionary philosophy of education without any direct involvement by Legionaries. This arrangement respects the authority of the local bishop and the freedom of lay Catholics to undertake works of service to which they believe they're called again, very much in the spirit of Vatican II.
The article brings up the case of Royalmont Academy in Cincinnati. Mr. Renner mischaracterizes the history of this school again because of his faulty premise: he does not acknowledge that the Legionary philosophy has been part of the vision of the school since its inception. He also neglects to explain that some families he describes as traditionalist dissociated themselves from the school precisely because Royalmont, like all Legionary affiliated schools, will operate in obedience to the authority of the local bishop. The traditionalists judged the local bishop to be too liberal and so left the school, a fact no one would know from the National Catholic Reporter.
False Accusations against Fr. Maciel
Finally, and most painfully for us Legionaries, the National Catholic Reporter unquestioningly rehashes false and discredited charges that Fr. Maciel, founder of the Legionaries, sexually abused men decades ago. This attack is especially shocking for families and understandably so, since it is the most sensational. It was also written by Mr Renner and first appeared in February 1997 in the Hartford Courant, Mr. Renner's employer until last April. Then as now, the writer wilfully ignores essential facts that discredit the accusers story. The men Mr. Renner quoted (1) claimed to hold Legionary positions they never held in apostolates that never existed, (2) actively attempted to recruit others to join in the lie, (3) changed their stories after being confronted with certain facts, and (4) had a decades-old history of trying to discredit Fr. Maciel with attacks found to be patently false by independent investigators. One of the accusers publicly recanted and admitted that allegations had been invented out of spite toward Fr. Maciel. Some accusations were printed despite the Legionaries supplying Mr. Renner with documented medical evidence to the contrary. The Courant told the Legionaries they thought their series of reports on Fr. Maciel would win journalism awards; they did not. They could not, since journalism is supposed to respect and report on the truth. Even so, the National Catholic Reporter reissues these discredited allegations with no mention of the evidence against them.
Every birth involves labor pains and so it is with developing new schools. Every new school struggles through obstacles. We as Legionaries don't claim perfection: in helping establish a number of new, independent Catholic schools across the country, we have faced problems brought on by all the normal human frailties. We are grateful to all the families who sacrifice so much to join us in the mission of Catholic education. Please join us in prayer for all our school communities, and, if you would, remember us Legionaries and our schools in your prayers as we face the current ordeal.See www.Legionaryfacts.org for additional information.
Note: See Gerald Renner's response to this open letter.