Turmoil in Atlanta

National Catholic Reporter/November 3, 2000
By Gerald Renner

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.

The takeover in Atlanta, where consequences have played out in recent months, is the latest in a string of similar incidents involving the Legionaries, a self-described "militant" religious order with a penchant for secrecy. Founded in Mexico in 1941 and modeled on an army, the Legionaries have stirred the passions of people all over the country as they have established a network of institutions. According to the Georgia Bulletin, the archdiocesan newspaper in Atlanta, they include about 25 private Catholic schools with students up to grade 12.

Tightly disciplined, hierarchical and traditional in its approach to doctrine and practice, the Legion can appeal to Catholics who yearn for the ways of the church before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

However, even some traditionalist Catholics have been put off by the order's tactics in taking over schools.

In Atlanta, the takeover was made possible by sale of The Donnellan School property to a newly formed non-profit group called The Donnellan, Inc. Its officers are Fr. Anthony Bannon, the Legion's U.S. director; Fr. John Hopkins, a Legionary priest who was named head chaplain and vice president of the school, and Msgr. Edward Dillon, an Atlanta pastor and the school's president.

The Georgia Bulletin reported that the archdiocese sold The Donnellan School property to the Legion-affiliated organization for $8 million in June 1999.

Disgruntled parents and staff members said they had been unaware of the consequences of the sale, including the Legion's total control, until at least a year later.

Since mid-September, at least 120 children have been removed from the school and at least five teachers have resigned. Enrollment last year was about 400 children in kindergarten through the eighth grade. Many parents, however, remain satisfied and say they see no changes at the school.

Jay Dunlap, national spokesman for the Legionaries, said that in contrast to the minority of parents unhappy at Donnellan, most others in the 25 to 30 schools affiliated with the Legion are "overwhelmingly satisfied." The Donnellan School is an exceptional case, he said, because it "is very rare that the Legion gets involved in a school that is already started." That is why, he said, in the case of Donnellan, the Legion kept a low profile during the first year.

He said in most other cases, the priests in the order are involved with parents from the very start to establish a school "that incorporates the Legion's educational philosophy." That means a school built on academic rigor and solid teaching of the Catholic faith, he said.

Enjoys papal favor

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.

A Legion official in Atlanta would not answer a reporter's questions about problems at the school.

Fr. Owen Kearns, a Legionary priest and publisher of the National Catholic Register, a weekly newspaper affiliated with the Legion, said officials in Atlanta had been restrained by lawsuits from talking to reporters.

"Naturally they can't discuss this, because it's in legal proceedings," he said.

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.

When educators failed to respond to the Legion's demands and began to alert parents, Legionaries took the next step, claiming that some educators attempted to undermine the school board's authority. On Sept. 13, at the order of the school's board of directors, the guidance counselor, the principal of the lower school, the athletic director and a middle school coordinator were fired and escorted from the building. Police were called to the scene and school officials warned fired staff members they would be arrested for trespassing if they tried to reenter the school.

The standoff happened at 2:30 on a Wednesday afternoon in view of stunned parents and crying children. A day later, some 500 parents questioned board members at an emotional meeting that left many dissatisfied.

"You have to understand the magic of our community" to understand what has been lost through the intervention of the Legion, Stinger said.

Both Stinger and Naples have sued. Stinger's suit, filed in Fulton County, names as defendants The Donnellan School, Inc., Msgr. Dillon and Fr. Hopkins. The suit alleges breach of contract and defamation, among other complaints. Plaintiffs in a third suit are Michael and Emily Deubel. Michael Deubel is the former athletic director at the school. His wife, Emily, was middle school coordinator.

The defendants, contending plaintiffs have been making false statements through the press, have asked the court to silence them with an injunction. The court denied the motion in mid-October.

Matthew S. Coles, lawyer for The Donnellan School and for the Atlanta archdiocese, described the firings as justifiable because, he said, the former teachers and administrators had been undermining the authority of the new owners.

Jay Morgan, father of two children at Donnellan, said he had seen no difference since the Legionaries became involved in the school. "I have to tell you that the whole issue of the Legion is a ruse and a smokescreen to divert people's attention from a very self-centered agenda," driven by the ambitions of one of the former administrators, he said. "I've searched high and low for some difference and I've seen none."

"This isn't about the Legion. It's about a group organizing because they wanted to take over a school, and the Legion has been bloodied by it. They've invented this whole story that the school was being taken over by a cult. It's created a lot of turmoil and it's sad, but we're coming out of it a better school."

The Legion's efforts to establish authoritarian control at The Donnellan School are in keeping with the Legion's philosophy, critics say.

"Unity is the supreme good for the movement, inasmuch as the movement is a body and an army at the service of the Kingdom of Christ," Legionaries founder Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado has written. "The director represents the authority of Christ the head, and the subject the redemptive obedience of Christ."

Legion priests take fourth vow

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.

Archbishop John F. Donoghue has challenged that assessment. "Any suggestion that the Legionaries of Christ are a 'cult' is to be disregarded as irresponsible and false," he wrote.

Donnellan began as a private Catholic school, with its own board outside the diocesan system. It was headed by Grey Sr. Dawn Gear, who has been cited nationally as a superior educator. In a state where public schools are near the bottom of the list nationally as measured by most criteria, Donnellan was an immediate success.

Gear attracted to Donnellan highly educated, affluent parents who wanted an academically solid Christian education for their children.

In January 1999, Gear was asked to step down by the board. That upset many parents who wondered what was going on. The nun herself will not speak about it publicly, but people who know her said she objected to the impending sale to the Legion. She retained a lawyer and made a private out-of-court settlement on condition she not speak out, said a person in a position to know.

The firings of the four faculty members galvanized the parents at Donnellan as nothing else had. Those who pulled their children out enrolled them in public schools, in parish schools, in other private schools, and in a hastily conceived new school.

The new school, the Atlanta Academy, was started by parents who raised, in less than two weeks, a quarter of a million dollars as seed money. It opened on Oct. 2 and by mid-October had enrolled 45 students.

Organizers of the new school hired the four staff members who were fired at Donnellan along with a Donnellan teacher who resigned last year. A music teacher and an art teacher have volunteered their time one day a week.

Parents who had already paid partial or full tuition -- as much as $7,400 a year -- have asked Donnellan officials for a refund. Board member David Hanna, brother of Frank Hanna, told parents that refunds, if granted, would be based on "need."

Parents go public

"We will be looking at each family that requests a refund based on their need, not their wants," Hanna wrote in an e-mail to a parent who demanded his money back. "Our first priority is to ensure that the school has the operating funds to meet the obligations of the school, including teacher salaries."

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.

The Atlanta archbishop, who was unavailable to answer a reporter's questions about the schools, is solidly in the Legion's corner. Kathi Stearns, a diocesan spokeswoman, said Donoghue would have no comment on the Legion but pointed to a letter he wrote to complaining parents on Sept. 18, five days after the staff members were dismissed.

In the letter, Donoghue disclaimed any responsibility for what happened at Donnellan School, noting that the decision to sell was made by "the board of a private, independent school" and that it would be inappropriate for him to interfere.

"My sole role at these schools is to be that of a spiritual father to ensure that their teaching of our Catholic faith remains true to the Holy Father's directions," Donoghue wrote. He said he has "seen no evidence that the Catholic faith is not being taught properly at the school."

Donoghue pointed out in the letter that the Legionaries of Christ are supported and admired by the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, and that Donoghue follows John Paul's example "in accepting the valuable contribution this congregation has made and continues to make to the work of our holy church."

Dunlap, the Legion's national spokesman, said if people generally are not aware of what the order is doing, that is because "we are a young and relatively new organization. We don't grow by blowing our horns from rooftops. We grow by meeting people one on one, growing with the help of people who have the desire and inspiration to help grow the church."

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.

"I just want my child in a safe, high academic, Catholic environment. That is not what Donnellan is right now," Flynn said.

The Legion left public comment to Donoghue and to Coles, attorney for both the school and the archdiocese.

In papers filed in response to lawsuits brought by former faculty members, Coles said the dismissals were justifiable. He argued that the faculty members violated their contracts by refusing to carry out and undermining board policies. The dismissals were justified, he added, because the former faculty members had mobilized teachers and parents against the board. In an interview, Coles declined to discuss why the dismissals took place in such a dramatic fashion.

Trouble last summer

Trouble began brewing in Atlanta this past summer, a year after the sale, when it became evident to some parents that the Legion had assumed control of The Donnellan School.

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."

When the Legionaries finally realized that they could not involve the family, Cook said, "They called my husband and asked him for a list of wealthy and influential people." He refused to provide any names. At the meeting of 500 parents on Sept. 14, Cook challenged Hopkins, the Legionaries' chaplain who turned out to be one of two top bosses at the school. She asked him to explain what she described as the Legion's divisive ways.

According to the minutes of the emotional meeting, Hopkins answered that he had directed the Legionaries to Cook's family. A representative of the Donnellan Parents Association recorded the minutes.

"We have lots of seminarians. We need to raise money to feed and educate them," Hopkins is reported to have said. "Our philosophy is to have personalized attention to the children. I have never heard that we should try to cut out the parents. We never try to cut out the parents. We don't want the kids to feel uncomfortable."

The dissenting parents say they were caught off guard by the Legion's role when it became obvious this year. Dunlap, the Legion's spokesman, said he doesn't know why some parents wre surprised. They had been informed of the Legion's involvement through the Georgia Bulletin and in a letter from the archbishop, he said. "Absolutely everything has been in full view at Donnellan," he said.

The order thought it would be wrong to come in and start changing things immediately, Dunlap said. For that reason, he said, "the Legion came in gently and gradually. Over time we bring in all the resources we can." 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.

They 'slurp up money'

"They have pictures of the Holy Father all over the place, and it's hard to tell people what is wrong with [the Legionaries]," said Colleen Kunnuth. Her husband, Dr. Art Kunnuth, had been president of the traditionalist school board before the takeover. Legionaries "continue to slurp up money" and recruit kids "all over the place," she said.

One of the first Legionaries schools, The Highlands in Irving, Tex., began as a homeschooling program with a half-dozen youngsters in the 1980s. In the early 1990s, Legion priests got involved teaching religion and took control. The school has since grown to 460 students on a 35-acre wooded campus adjoining the University of Dallas, an institution of the Dallas diocese. But it has had a bumpy existence.

"We had a massacre here at The Highlands, the same thing as is happening in Atlanta," said a former top administrator of the school, one of three former officials who spoke on condition they not be identified because they fear it would jeopardize their positions as educators.

Another said, "The soul of their order is Mexican, and they want to model their schools on the Mexican ones [where] you have a class system and among lay people you have a docility. They don't understand the American system of education with its collegiality."

A third complained, "The Legionaries are not known as educators. Legionaries are known for recruitments into seminary." He left the Highland School, he said, because "I was fed up with their ethics."

In some places, such as the Milwaukee archdiocese, the Legion's priests have been barred, but Regnum Christi members have established an independent school in Milwaukee that lies beyond the jurisdiction of Archbishop Rembert Weakland. It was originally named Pinecrest, the same as a school in Atlanta, but has been renamed Aquinas.

The chancellor of the Milwaukee archdiocese, Barbara Anne Cusack, said Bannon, the Legion's national director, had promised archdiocesan officials in 1993 that Legion priests wouldn't visit the school anymore. Nevertheless, she said, the school makes reference to its ties to the Legion in some of its materials.

"[Bannon] is saying in 1993 that Legionaries are not involved in that school, but I heard as late as last week that they were," Cusack said in a telephone interview last month.

Alfred Szewz, who was a cofounder of the school in 1992, said that Legion priests stopped visiting the school because "we were trying to be obedient to the archbishop."

Szewz was a "pro bono" principal of the school for several years. A retired Marquette University professor of electrical engineering, he is no longer active in the school. He is not a Regnum Christi member but said others in key positions are.

Another person who was close to the administration of Aquinas School said it was "micromanaged" by priests from Edgerton, Wis., in the Madison diocese, where the Legion has an "apostolic school," mainly for boys from Latin America.

'The Legion will be back'

"When Weakland goes, the Legion will be back in there like a shot," the source said. Weakland will reach the church's mandatory retirement age for bishops in 2002.

For the Legionaries in Atlanta, however, there's no waiting. The archbishop's welcome mat is out, and some parents say things are going well. Kitty Moots, mother of two boys who attend Donnellan, said many parents are very satisfied with the Legionaries presence at the school. "I don't know where all this negative publicity is coming from except lack of knowledge of holy orders in general," she said. "We haven't seen anything but positive things since Fr. Hopkins has been there."

Moots said Hopkins had helped one of her sons deal with a problem he was having with a classmate. "The Legionaries have had a focus in education and seem to be comfortable dealing with children." Further, Moots said, her children "seem to be enjoying their faith so much more" because of Hopkins' influence. "That's a real positive for us."

Donnellan families got together for a barbecue recently to foster a spirit of "let's have fun, let's move on with it," she said. "These are parents who just want to give their kids a good Catholic education."

What both sides in the school dispute appear to agree on is that the ouster of the faculty members at The Donnellan School was the culmination of months of differences between the faculty members and many of the parents on one side and the seven-member board on the other.

"I have never see a termination handled in a more botched manner," said Arch Stokes, a specialist in labor law who has been retained to represent the terminated faculty members.

Stokes said involving police in the firings was unnecessary. "These are gentle people," he said. The dismissed faculty members said the board made unjustifiable demands on them while trying to impose the will of the Legion. 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.

There's no denying that the Legion's methods, however controversial, are working. In contrast to most religious orders, which are shrinking, Legionaries have attracted a growing number of candidates to the priesthood and to their organization of "consecrated women" who recruit students at schools and youth groups they run. The order reports it has 400 priests and 2,500 seminarians in 20 countries, more than double the number of a decade ago.

The untold part of the story, critics said, is the number of priests that eventually leave the order.

The new Atlanta Academy is at capacity with 45 students in three rented rooms in St. Philip's Episcopal Cathedral in the Tony Buckhead section of Atlanta. Twenty-seven more are on a waiting list, and parents of another 88 children said they will enroll when the school finds a permanent place, said Flynn, the parents' spokeswoman.

Flynn said she knows many parents who are sticking to Donnellan through the end of the academic year but who said they will seriously consider switching to the Atlanta Academy next year.

Ian Lloyd-Jones, one of the organizing parents and president of a firm that owns and manages a string of hotels, including the historically famous Algonquin Hotel in New York City, said he is confident that the Atlanta Academy will soon move into a roomier place and expand rapidly.

The new school is nondenominational and "Christ-centered" and will emphasize the best in academic standards, Christian charity and tolerance, Lloyd-Jones said.

Note: See the Legionaries of Christ's response to this article.

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