The Legionaries of Christ, a militaristically styled order of Roman Catholic priests based in Connecticut, calls recruiting candidates for the priesthood "capturing vocations.''
The language is more than figurative, say several men who accepted invitations last year to join the Legionaries' novice training program.
They say that superiors of the tightly controlled, boot camp-like training program would not release them when they decided that priesthood in the Legion was not for them.
They say that the Legionaries tried to manipulate and intimidate them psychologically, refused to return their civilian clothes and subjected them to such intense pressure to stay that they felt they had no choice but to plan escapes and flee.
The Legionaries, who have their U.S. headquarters in Orange, refused to respond to inquiries from The Courant regarding the former novices' allegations. The order declines most requests for interviews, even from Catholic periodicals.
Requests for an interview and questions in writing were directed last month to the order's national director, the Rev. Anthony Bannon, through his secretary, Brother John Curran. Curran accused The Courant of stirring up "scandal'' and said he did not expect Bannon to respond.
The allegations, if true, violate basic precepts of priestly formation in the Catholic Church, canon lawyers and other church sources say.
"The whole canonical process recognizes the primacy of conscience and free will. The last thing the church wants is for someone to stay because of psychological pressure,'' said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest with the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, D.C. He has written extensively on church governance.
The men making the allegations spent last summer at the order's seminary in Cheshire in a program "to test their vocations.'' In September they were invited to become novices.
At this point everything is voluntary with no promises made or vows taken, in accord with general church practice. Becoming a novice is a first step in a process that might take as long as 13 years in the Legionaries to be ordained a priest. The Legionaries call priests in training "brothers'' from the moment they enter the novitiate, which lasts two years.
The critics portrayed a day-and-night difference between the summer candidacy program, which reinvigorated their commitment to the faith, and their introduction to the novitiate, which they said they found so demeaning and manipulative they decided to leave. Each was a committed Catholic from a pious home of traditional devotion.
They said the program was intensive. Every second of their time was scheduled from the moment they were roused at 4:30 a.m. until bedtime, usually between 10 and 11 p.m. They had classes in religion, Latin, Greek and Spanish. They also said they had to memorize 368 verses of rules from a red hardcover book that governed everything they did, from how to eat (never eat an apple whole, pare it on a plate) to how to part their hair (on the left).
They said they needed permission to do everything, even to take an aspirin. They were not to ask questions, they said, but to do as they were told and they were never to speak critically about the Legion. They said their letters home were scrutinized before they were mailed and only positive things could be written. They said they had to write letters to seminarians they did not even know "on other fronts'' -- that is, Legionaries in other countries -- and tell them how much they liked the Legionaries' life.
They said they had no access to a telephone except through a monitored switchboard.
Some of the novices thrived on the strict discipline, the novices recounted. The ones who adapted best were the young men who had been with the Legionaries since they were as young as 12 years old, they said.
About 200 young men are reportedly in training at the seminary in Cheshire. Some are finishing high school and others are in the novitiate, doing preparatory studies for the priesthood before further schooling in Spain and Italy.
Some of the students in Cheshire came from the Immaculate Conception Apostolic School in Center Harbor, N.H., a boarding school for students in the seventh to ninth grades run by the Legionaries.
Two Mexican boys, 15 and 16 years old, are in the novitiate program, the former novices say. They point out that is contrary to canon law, which says that "one who had not yet completed the seventeenth year of age'' may not be admitted into a novitiate.
Two former novices told The Courant how they separately engineered "escapes'' after they had been sent from Cheshire to a secluded estate in Westchester County, New York.
The 100-acre estate sits on a hill behind a medireview-style watch tower in a heavily wooded section of New Castle, near Mt. Kisco. A mansion, extended with dormitory wings on either side, sits at the end of a winding half-mile-long private road. Town records show the Legionaries purchased the property in 1994 for $3.1 million from the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, commonly known as the Moonies.
The former novices allege that they were subjected to the same kind of mind-numbing, sleep-depriving tactics that the Moonies had been accused of using on recruits in the 1960s and '70s.
Hugh McCaffery, 30, of Pensacola, Fla., said he kept saying he wanted to leave "but they laughed it off.''
"They'd say, `OK, you're complaining, you're venting, but you'll get over it.' ''
When he insisted he wanted to leave, "They told me to write down on paper what you don't like and we will discuss it. I gave them a page and a half and said it was intolerable,'' McCaffery said in atelephone interview from his home.
Still the order resisted releasing him, McCaffery said. "They are totally trained to tell you this is the fundamental option in life, and if you don't choose it you will go to hell.''
He said the idea to flee crystalized one afternoon when a priest told the novices, "You guys think we are brainwashing you. You think we are stealing your personalities away. I said to myself that's exactly what you are doing.''
At the end of November during an outdoor retreat, he said, he shed his cassock, folded it carefully on the ground, and fled.
"As soon as I got to the woods I started running like a deer. My sunglasses fell out. They cost me $80 but I didn't stop to pick them up,'' he said.
He said he ran 3 miles into Mt. Kisco. He had no money, he said, but rented a car with a credit card he had in his wallet and drove straight home to Pensacola, surprising his parents.
Several weeks before McCaffery fled, two other men made an elaborately planned getaway, according to an account one of them gave The Courant. He related how the fathers repeatedly brushed aside his request to be released.
Finally, he said, he and his companion broke into the mansion's attic to retrieve their suitcases.They hid them under their beds and watched for an opportunity to retrieve them unobserved. That came one day when the students were at athletics. They hid their bags in bushes and jogged into Mt. Kisco.
He telephoned a friend. "I told him I just escaped from the seminary and I have a friend with me. Can you pick us up? He said, 'no problem.' ''
This man, in his 30s, at first talked freely and at length in a telephone call and a personal meeting but was ambivalent about being identified in a news story. He finally decided he did not want to be named because he thought it might jeopardize his chances to get into another seminary.
Also, he said, he talked to his "spiritual adviser'' and "a couple of priests I think a lot of and they personally feel to go public would do more damage to the Catholic Church at this time.''
Another former novice who was sent from Cheshire to Monterrey, Mexico, said it took the order weeks after he said he wanted to quit to return him to the United States. The order held his money, passport and clothes so he couldn't leave on his own, he said.
He, too, asked for anonymity.
"I fear retaliation if my full name is printed in your story because the Legion is a powerful, wealthy and secretive organization,'' he wrote in a letter to The Courant. He also is seeking admission to another seminary.
"I became disillusioned and left the Legion over their brainwashing, which turns people into robot-like personalities, their unrealistic expectations, their pressure on members to obey rules and accomplish tasks, their ridicule, their secrecy, their manipulating and their pressure on members to raise money for the organization.''
The novices are expected to talk relatives into becoming part of what the order calls Regnum Christi,meaning the Kingdom of God, a lay adjunct to the Legionaries. Members are asked to make substantial contributions, McCaffery and the others said.
The order also runs a sophisticated direct-mail fund-raising campaign out of its U.S. headquarters in Orange and a satellite operation in Hamden.
"Lottery sweepstakes'' offering cash prizes of up to $5,000 for a $5 donation for a book of 10 tickets accompany moving pleas for money to train seminarians.
The order, founded in Mexico in 1941, reports it has 350 priests and 2,000 seminarians in 16 countries, double the number of a decade ago. Forty-three of the priests are in the United States. The order's Mexican-born founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, 76, directs the Legionaries from headquarters in Rome.
The Legionaries are esteemed in Rome. Pope John Paul II presided at the ordination of 60 new priests of the order in 1991 and praised Maciel for loyalty to the papacy. Maciel accompanied the pope on two of his trips to the United States.Note: See the Legionaries of Christ's response to this article.