VATICAN CITY (AP) — A U.S. judge has ruled in favor of the Legion of Christ in throwing out a lawsuit contesting the will of an elderly widow who gave more than $30 million to the disgraced Roman Catholic religious order.
But Judge Michael Silverstein of Rhode Island Superior Court found evidence that the woman, Gabrielle Mee, had been unduly persuaded to change her will and give the Legion her money, detailing the process by which the Legion slowly took over control of her finances as she became more deeply involved in the movement.
Pope Benedict XVI took over the Legion in 2010 after a Vatican investigation determined its founder, the late Rev. Marcial Maciel lived a double life: he sexually molested seminarians and fathered three children by two women. The pope ordered a wholesale reform of the order after finding serious problems with its very culture, and named a papal delegate to oversee it.
The Maciel scandal has been particularly damaging for the church given that the Mexican-born priest was held up by Pope John Paul II as a model for the faithful, admired for his perceived orthodoxy and ability to bring in money and attract new seminarians.
It was that high esteem that attracted Mee, a devout Roman Catholic, to the Legion in the first place, Silverstein wrote in his Sept. 7 order throwing out a lawsuit filed by Mee’s niece contesting her will.
The niece, Mary Lou Dauray, had alleged that Mee was defrauded by the Legion and unduly influenced by its priests into giving away her fortune. Her late husband was a one-time director of Fleet National Bank.
Silverstein, however, ruled that Dauray had no standing. Dauray’s attorney, Bernard Jackvony, said his client was considering an appeal.
Yet in his 39-page ruling, Silverstein took pains to cite evidence submitted by Dauray’s attorneys to detail the process by which the Legion wooed Mee, bending the rules to let her become a “consecrated” member of its lay movement, giving her privileged access to Maciel and inviting her on special trips to Rome and Mexico.
He cited letters from the Legion thanking Mee for her money, emphasizing how her generosity was “pleasing both the Lord and assisting his mission” while also satisfying her late husband’s wishes.
Such fundraising tactics have long been a hallmark of the Legion: critics have pointed to the process by which typically good-looking priests would shower wealthy patrons with praise, access and spiritual guidance while persuading them to donate their fortunes.
“The transfer of millions of dollars worth of assets — through will, trust and gifts — from a steadfastly spiritual elderly woman to her trusted but clandestinely dubious religious leaders raises a red flag to this court,” Silverstein wrote.
Maciel himself, whom Mee considered a living saint, gave her financial advice, and another Legion priest helped her with her estate planning, Silverstein wrote. He detailed how Mee, after she became consecrated, created a Legion-appointed committee to determine distributions from her trust and eventually gave the Legion full control over her finances.
At the same time, the Legion withheld full information about Maciel’s misdeeds, which first came to light in 1997 with a newspaper article alleging the sexual abuse, Silverstein wrote. By 2006, Legion leaders knew of Maciel’s child.
The Legion claimed in court filings that Mee was informed of Maciel’s double life, but Silverstein cited evidence disputing that and also noted that she cut off support to another religious movement as soon as she learned that one of its founders had had sexual relations with another man.
“Plaintiffs argue, and the court recognizes, that this could reasonably indicate how Mrs. Mee would have acted if she had known of the allegations (or the extent of the allegations) against Father Maciel,” he wrote.
An email seeking comment Friday from the Legion was not immediately returned.
The Legion has been facing a serious slump in fundraising following the revelations of Maciel’s double life. Properties have been sold off and schools have been closed as the Legion’s once exponential growth has contracted, with dozens of priests leaving the order and fewer seminarians joining its ranks.
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield
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