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Title Legion of Christ - Turmoil in Atlanta

Legion of Christ - Turmoil in Atlanta November 3rd, 2000 - In the past, when the controversial Legion of Christ has taken over Catholic schools, teachers and administrators who objected have quietly gone elsewhere. Parents who couldn t accept the new situation transferred their children to other schools. In Atlanta it was different. In mid-1999, the Legionaries, a staunchly conservative order of priests, took control of The Donnellan School, a private, independent Catholic school in the affluent Sandy Springs suburb of Atlanta. When, a year and a half later, the new administrators fired four staff members, the staff members went to court. Parents who felt betrayed yanked their kids out of the 4-year-old school and started their own. They didn t go quietly. The parents invited the media to cover their protests and amplified their complaints through a Web page on the Internet. [...] [...] even some traditionalist Catholics have been put off by the order s tactics in taking over schools. [...] Board members of the Donellan School before and after the sale include Frank Hanna III, a multimillionaire businessman well known in Georgia for his support of conservative Republican causes, and a member of Regnum Christi, the Legion s organization for laity that stresses loyalty to the pope and submissiveness to the will of the Legion s priests. While the order does not publicly outline its ambition for a network of schools, the movement is significant for several reasons. Not least, it enjoys the favor of Pope John Paul II. The order s standing with the papacy appears to remain unshaken despite serious allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against its founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, by former priests and seminarians. The allegations became public in 1997. In its literature, the order makes it clear that its structure is rigidly militaristic and that unity is prized. Wherever the order has put down roots in the United States, it has introduced into the Catholic parochial culture a highly authoritarian approach that brooks no challenges from underlings. The order s U.S. base is in Orange, Conn. [...] Critics of the takeover in Atlanta said the Legionaries deceived parents and sought unquestioned loyalty from administrators. A former Donnellan principal, Angela Naples, said that two school officials, Hopkins, the Legionary priest, and Dillon, the school s president, held her against her will for hours on Sept. 5 trying to persuade her to sign a confidential loyalty pledge. She described it as a modification of her contract that would have required her to resign at the end of the school year and to report to school officials anything negative said by employees or parents against the Legionaries. According to Diane Stinger, former guidance counselor, Hopkins ordered her to report on confidential conversations she had with students. Specifically, she said, she was to provide Hopkins with weekly lists of meetings with students and tell him what they said. [...] The approach is reinforced from the start by requiring Legion priests, who pledge total fidelity to the pope, to take a vow in addition to the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience taken by other religious orders. Legion priests, in their fourth vow, swear never to speak ill of the Legion, its Rome-based founder Maciel, now 80, or of their superiors. They also promise to inform on anyone who does. You are not supposed to question authorities or systems. It is a methodology that is cult-like, said Paul Lennon, who was a Legionary priest for 23 years. [...] Most of the aggrieved Atlanta parents recognized they could not win against the small but powerful religious order backed by the pope and, in Atlanta, by the area s Catholic overseer, Archbishop Donoghue. But they loved their school before the Legionaries took over and said they weren t going to fade away without a fight. At the very least, they said, bringing the incident to public attention will serve as a warning to others. While the Legionaries may emphasize the pursuit of holiness, critics at Donnellan and elsewhere complain that often piety takes precedence over learning and that class time is sometimes cut because students are pulled from class for Masses, retreats and even to picket abortion clinics. Legionaries have been accused of breaking up families by persuading boys as young as 12 to enter their apostolic schools in Centre Harbor, N.H., and Edgerton, Wis., to prepare to become priests. Psychological pressure on young men to continue through the educational ranks, from the order s junior college-level seminary in Cheshire, Conn., to its graduate seminaries in Spain and Rome, is reported to be intense. Theresa Murray, who enrolled her third-grade daughter at Pinecrest Academy, another Legionary-affiliated school in the Atlanta suburb of Cumming, claims that she discovered such an imbalance well into the school year. The final straw came one day when her daughter, who was 8, came home and said she wanted to commit suicide so she could see Jesus. Murray enrolled her child elsewhere. [...] What the Legion is doing, Dunlap said, is a beautiful, lived reality of what the Vatican Council asked of its laity and the church. It brings laity and clergy together in our mutual call to love Christ and love his church. Karen Flynn, spokeswoman for the dissenting parents, sees it differently. We have been receiving phone calls from around the country from parents and other Catholics stating that they feel the Legionaries of Christ are a cult and to keep our children away from them, she said. Flynn pulled her child out of Donnellan in September. [...] Melissa Cook, one of the parents, believes she was deceived when she went to enroll her children at Donnellan last year. She inquired about reports that the school s new chaplain was a Legionary priest, she said, and received assurances from the school s staff that the school was not run by the Legion. It turns out, Cook said, that was simply not true. Members of the staff claimed in interviews that they were also misled at the time. Cook, who describes herself as an ultra-orthodox Catholic, said she had grown suspicious of the Legion in the summer of 1999 when she met two Legionaries and invited them into her home to learn more about the order. After that they returned repeatedly, often unannounced. Cook said they wanted her and her husband to go on separate retreats. The couple refused. However, they said, they might consider going on a retreat for couples. The Legionaries at one point talked about the way they counseled children without having the parents involved, she said. It was so completely divisive, Cook said. Cook s mother, who taught in parochial schools for more than 30 years and who sat in on some of the sessions with the Legionaries, warned her daughter, Be real careful of these guys. [...] Former Donnellan parents are not the only ones uncomfortable with the Legion. Parents at schools around the country have other stories to tell. Even traditionalist Catholics have been disturbed. Disillusioned traditionalist Catholics in Cincinnati complain that three years ago the Legion took control of the private school traditionalist parents had set up. Regarding parochial schools as too liberal, they wanted the old-fashioned kind of education for their children that they had experienced, anchored in the lessons of the Baltimore Catechism and where sex education is left to the parents. The parents said they accepted the help of the Legion to teach religion because the Legion seemed sympathetic to their cause. Before long, members of Regnum Christi dominated their board and voted to give the Legion total control. Parents, they said, no longer had any control, and they had to accept the top-down rule of the Legionaries. [...] The Donnellan School, named for the late Atlanta Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, opened in April 1996. Archbishop was dropped from the name of the school when it affiliated with the Legion. Stripping archbishop from the name was in line with the Legion s practice of using neutral, secular terms for most of its affiliated schools such as The Highlands in Irving, Texas, Woodmont in Woodstock, Md., Everest in Detroit, Royalmont in Cincinnati, Cedarcrest in Plymouth, Minn., Gateway in St. Louis, Blue Mountain in Lewiston, Idaho, and so on. Maciel has explained to Regnum Christi members that the Legion does not want the school s name to be a possible deterrent to potential students or contributors who could be put off by religious affiliations. [...] This is a summary extract of the full article as it appeared in National Catholic Report, Nov. 3, 2000