Legionaries of Christ puts 2nd Westchester property up for sale

Lower Hudson.com, New York/May 2, 2012

The conservative Roman Catholic order the Legionaries of Christ once had big plans for Westchester County, including a university in Mount Pleasant and a seminary in New Castle.

But the order that had been a favorite of Pope John Paul II's began to crumble in 2009 when word spread that its founder had lived a "double life," abusing seminarians and fathering children.

Now the Legion is retrenching and preparing to say goodbye to Westchester.

The order recently announced that it plans to sell a 264-acre property in Thornwood that it bought from IBM in 1996 for $33.5 million. If the two-parcel property is returned to the tax rolls, it could mean up to $1.5 million a year for the the Mount Pleasant school district and the town.

Last year, the Legion said it would seek to sell a 97-acre property in New Castle that it bought in 1994 for $3.12 million from the Unification Church.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a commentator on Catholic matters based at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., said many Catholic orders and dioceses are selling properties because of declining donations and the need to settle sexual abuse cases.

"The Legionaries were hit especially hard because they were optimistic on growth when the floor fell out from under them," he said. "I feel especially sorry for the idealistic young men who believed in their founder and then were betrayed."

The Legion moved into Westchester at a time when the order was growing fast around the world, was renowned for its fundraising, and was beloved by the pope and conservative Catholics for its traditionalist approach and its ability to attract young men to the priesthood.

At the time, the order's U.S. headquarters were in Orange, Conn.

The order's development plans faced resistance in both New Castle and Mount Pleasant over zoning and tax issues, and the Legion will apparently leave the area with few of its plans realized.

Legion spokesman Jim Fair said the order is just beginning to work toward marketing the Mount Pleasant property.

"It's about money and about the fact we were spread kind of thin," he said. "We need to get our footprint to a more manageable size."

A letter released on April 2 from the Rev. Luis Garza, director of the Legion's North American operations, to the order's members said the Mount Pleasant property would be sold to reduce the order's debt.

"By living more within our means, we hope to be in a better position to serve the Church here in North America," he wrote.

Fair said he had no new information on plans to sell the New Castle property.

The Legion sought to develop a training center on a 97-acre parcel in Mount Pleasant and in 2003 announced plans to build a liberal arts university on an adjoining 165-acre parcel. The town sought to keep the land on the tax rolls but absorbed some key losses in court, including a 2007 ruling to pay back almost $8 million in taxes to the Legion.

Town Supervisor Joan Maybury said that there are still several pending court and tax cases but that she hoped things would get worked out over the next few weeks.

"Everyone is trying to get things on the table so our interests can be served and the Legion can tie up their issues," she said.

"This is potentially good news for the town, as this is a large piece of property that has been off the tax rolls since 1996. This opens up a lot of possibilities."

Maybury said the school district and town could see $1.5 million in new annual revenues, with about 70 percent going to the schools, if the property returns to the tax rolls.

She also said the New York City Department of Environmental Protection has expressed interest in part of the land, which straddles the Kensico Reservoir basin.

"They would pay taxes and keep the land green," she said. "That would be a nice option."

David Tobias, head of the DEP's land acquisition department, had no comment.

Susan Guiney, superintendent of the Mount Pleasant schools, said the district would welcome the added tax revenue at a time when the state's new tax-levy cap is making it tough on schools to maintain programming.

"Yes, it would be significant," she said.

The Legion's 97-acre New Castle property, which includes an old mansion and living quarters, was intended to be a seminary but has remained a retreat center. A website marketing the property — www.773 armonkroad.com — says that proposals were being accepted until March 29, 2011.

The Legion was founded in Mexico in 1941 by the Rev. Marcial Maciel, a charismatic priest who became a favorite son of John Paul II, even after allegations surfaced during the 1990s that nine men accused Maciel of molesting them.

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI forced Maciel to retire to a life of "prayer and penitence," without addressing the reasons behind the move. Maciel died in 2008.

The following year, the Legion admitted that Maciel had fathered several children and molested boys over several decades.

In 2010, the Vatican named a papal delegate to oversee the Legion into an unclear future.

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