One Catholic Priest's story about life in the Legion

By Fr. Peter Cronin, now deceased

I am a Catholic priest, the pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Church, a large Catholic parish in Silver Spring MD, just outside Washington D.C.

In 1965 at the tender age of 16 I finished the Leaving Certificate at Drimnagh Castle and, with some 20 others, joined the Legionaries who were then at Belgard Castle in Clondalkin.

The postulancy ran through the summer months after which we entered the novitiate (two years) and then took our religious vows. I was sent to Salamanca in Spain for a year to study the classics and Spanish and from there to Rome for studies of philosophy. After three years in Rome I was assigned to the Irish Institute, a Legionary school in Mexico, where I worked from 1971 to 1975. I then returned to Rome and studied theology for the next three years. In 1979 I was assigned to the novitiate in Connecticut where I continued working at the novitiate until the summer of 1985 when I left the Legionaries of Christ. I am now a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington.

The question at the center of the discussion I heard on your program seemed to be whether the Legion was a religious order in the normal sense of the word or a sect. In my own experience the order combines elements of both realities . It is an extremely conservative order which has modeled the formation program for its students on the early Jesuits and much of its apostolate is copied from Opus Dei. It has a Constitution and Rules, specific apostolates and activities such as other order have.

At the same time the Legion uses many of the strategies and policies more characteristic of sects or cults and in this it parts company with mainstream religious congregations of the Church. Let me give some examples.1.

The order has the most high-powered recruiting program known to the Catholic Church. Numbers of recruits are important, seen as proof of the validity of the Legion and a way of impressing authorities in the Church. However, the screening process is minimal, and there is no true discernment of a vocation, of whether this way of life is good or healthy for the given individual. The good - human, psychological or spiritual - of the candidate is never a consideration. Everybody has a vocation to the Legion until the Legion decides otherwise. Once the order gains access to a young person, all its powers of persuasion and attraction are trained on the unwitting target.

The Legion recruits many young people, the younger the better, in their mid-teens for the novitiate, even earlier for their Vocation Centers. In these schools boys as young as 11 and 12 are influenced and guided toward a life in the Legion. These schools exist at least in Mexico, Spain and the U.S. (Center Harbor New Hampshire). The idea is to influence the person as early as possible, to "form" that person in the spirit of the Legion so that no other influence can distort or stain his vocation and 'legionary personality". He must be removed from any other influence. The youthfulness and immaturity of the candidate make him vulnerable to brainwashing.

Once in the order the person is subjected to the most intensive "formation" program, i.e. brainwashing. The Legion's for this is 'formation'. Brainwashing is brought about by a combination of different elements which influence and control the person with great effectiveness: for example, 'spiritual direction' and 'confession'. Canon Law states that seminarians and religious should have complete freedom to choose a confessor and spiritual director. In the Legion that is not the case, there is no freedom at all: all Legionaries have spiritual direction and confession with their Superiors, in the novitiate, through their years of formation and even as priests.

This is an aberration because it places the person completely in the control of the superior. It means that that superior who recommends or not a person for promotion to vows or orders or positions of responsibility in the order has access to the internal conscience of the person in question. Confession and spiritual direction are essentially tools in the hands of the Legion to brainwash the individuals to stay in the Legion, to convince them that they have a vocation from God to the Legion, to conform totally with the Legion and the wishes of the superiors, and a way in which the Legion gains total access to the conscience and mind of the person.

Legionaries are constantly exhorted to tell the superior/ spiritual director everything , to hold back nothing, to have no secrets. Other tools of 'brainwashing' are the continuous series of conferences, talks,retreats,exhortations that the communities constantly receive and which repeat and reinforce the essential message.

In all this, the basic message, the bottom line, is that the members have a 'Vocation' to the Legion and this vocation is from God and they have received this vocation from all eternity. It is God's will that they are in the Legion. If they are not faithful to their vocation they are endangering their eternal salvation, they risk damnation and hell. This message is a constant drumbeat throughout life in the Legion, perhaps the most consistent and all-pervasive ritornello that is communicated and repeated in many different ways.

From the moment he joins, a person in the Legion of Christ is submitted to total control in everything he does, everything he says, everything he thinks. The Legion refers to this as 'integration' and a Legionary must strive to achieve perfect integration of behavior, of mind and of will. This means conformity with the will of the Legion in everything. He must be transformed into the legionary personality and to do this must lose his own personality. All forms and expressions of 'individualism' must be stamped out. this is stressed from the very beginning. However, it is done in a subtle way, very gently at first, with smile and good humor, barley noticeable to the victim.

When we joined the Legion we thought it was a mainstream order like the Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits.We were deceived in that many things were not disclosed to us until a later date. There was always a shroud of secrecy - visits home, the apostolate of the Legion (Regnum Christi.). The ground was constantly shifting and changing. It would take years before we would get the full picture.

The person who joins the legion is systematically separated and distanced from any other influence, especially from family, culture, the wider church and society ('the world'). People outside the legion are referred to as 'outsiders', they are viewed with the utmost distrust, communication with them is monitored and usually discouraged (except when the Legion is trying to attract them for the aims of the order. Legionaries are forbidden to communicate with outsiders and must report on conversations and any dealings with people outside the order.

In the Legion of Christ the individual has no privacy, either physical or psychological. He has no space of his own as the superiors enter his room without knocking, go through his room, personal effects and belongings when he is not there (and this without his knowledge). He has no time to himself as every waking moment is scheduled and intensely regimented. Members are encouraged to spy on and report on other members in a continuous way: "we must help brother John and what better way that to keep the superiors informed as they , more than anybody else, can help him." There are rules (literally thousands of them) which direct and control every action and movement of his life (eating, drinking, walking, speaking.)

The secrecy of the order towards the outside world is another sect-like trait: in the order this is referred to as 'prudence' or 'discretion' or 'spirit of reserve'. Outsiders are seen as a threat; the members are actually forbidden to communicate with anybody outside the community without permission from the superior, and this includes family members. No information about the order - its practices, rules, customs, schedules, plans, constitutions, rulebooks - can be given to the outside. Try asking them for a copy of the Constitution, for their rulebooks, the complete edition of the letters of Fr. Marciel the manual of Regnum Christi, the Chapter document.

There is total control of communications from the outside world and the with the outside: all letters to and from the outside, including those of parents and family, are opened and read by the superiors. This is true for novices, religious, at all stages of formation, and priests. All newspapers, magazines and books are read and censored by the Superiors. There is no possibility of having a confessor, spiritual director or advisor outside the order. This is forbidden.

The control of communication with the outside world is also exercised within the order and between members. Nobody can ever confide in another member in any way within the order, especially if he has a problem of any sort. He must discuss it with the superior and only the superior. There is a constant supervision, vigilance of the superior at all times. NO friendship is allowed between members.

Within the order there is a total lack of dialogue, discussion, disagreement or dissent within the order. There is no room for any disagreement with the Legion. The member has to accept everything the order says without question. The motivation - every rule, every order, every idea of the Legion is divinely ordained, directly inspired by God and, therefore, unquestionable. The moment one questions a policy, a rule, a decision that person is punished and maybe even banished, sent to some out of the way place (like the missions in Quintana Roo, Mexico) where he can have no influence on others.

Another sect-like trait of the order is the difficulty involved with leaving. It is extremely difficult to get out as one is constantly guided, encouraged to stay with all sorts of arguments, and one is especially saddled with a guilt complex: "you are betraying your vocation, you have a responsibility toward the souls who will be lost because of this move." When one takes the decision to leave, he is carefully isolated from the other members of the order, by being transferred to some other house, or a campaign of rumor is spread among the other members - "be careful with Fr. Peter, he has problems.." This experience is common to all who have left: the sense of isolation and loneliness with which one leaves the Legion of Christ is terrible.

Once you leave the Legion you will never hear from the order again. I spent twenty years in the Legion. since the day I left I have never heard from the order, have never received a letter, a phone call, much less an invitation to visit, or a visit from them (even though for 11 years I have lived within a few miles of their center outside Washington). I received absolutely no assistance or support to relocate to another diocese, no help toward continuing in the priesthood, absolutely no interest in me as a person nor as a priest.

For twenty years the Legion had been my 'life', my 'family', my 'world', but from the moment I stepped out their door on July 27 1985 I never again heard from them. I came to this diocese directly against their wishes and getting the necessary documents to incardinate officially here was very difficult. Leaving the order is the only way one can disagree with the Legion and the Legion takes it as an insult or a rejection.

I have taken a long time to get my life together but now feel that I have the Legion of Christ out of my system, it is a thing of the past. About five years ago I started a "Network" of former member of the order which has grown to thirty - some priests, former priests and others who spent a few years in the order as students. There is a similar network in Spain. We communicate a couple of times each year, many of us get together here or in Ireland and are able to share experiences, stories, even 'funny incidents' (to steal a Paddy Crosby phrase!).

A movie could be made of some of the escape routes and strategies and the survival stories. I often refer to my former parish in Bethesda MD as our 'underground railroad' as the former pastor (Msgr. James Reddy, an Irishman now deceased) was most welcoming and supportive to several priests as they were leaving the Legion and transitioning to a new life).

Many people were deep hurt in the process of leaving the Legion and take years to recover. From me leaving the Legion was my 'exodus', the liberation in which I experienced strength and presence of the Holy Spirit. Happily, our Network has been able to help others who are leaving or who had just left.

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