Religious group kicked off Ave Maria campus for 'immoral conduct'

Naples Daily News/September 8, 2010

Ave Maria - A group dedicated to calling women to religious service has been ordered off the Ave Maria University campus after one nun in the group was accused of "immoral conduct."

The superior sister in the Spanish religious group Home of the Mother was recalled to Spain in March, according to the university, after she was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a female student. According to an initial story on community news website, Sister Maria Elena was accused of having a sexual relationship with the student.

University President Nicholas Healy would not confirm that detail, but said the university is simply referring to it as "immoral conduct between the religious sister and a female student."

The unidentified student was not a minor at that time, Healy said, and she is still enrolled at the university.

Sister Maria Elena was, prior to her removal, a teacher at Donahue Academy, the primary school in the town of Ave Maria.

Healy said the university has no reason to believe the nun had any inappropriate contact with students at Donahue Academy, but he said the school has, regardless, notified parents of the incident. Another nun who belonged to Home of the Mother is listed on the Donahue website as a teacher, and will have to be replaced, Healy said.

Donahue Headmaster Dan Guernsey deferred all comment to the university.

The purpose of the religious group, also known by the Spanish name Hogar de la Madre, was to help women at the university determine their religious calling. Since August 2004, the small group of nuns headed up the religious discernment center for female Ave Maria students interested in the religious life.

Healy said the group is currently serving 16 students, though membership fluctuates as students enter and leave the group.

Four Home of the Mother nuns lived in Ave Maria, with two priests overseeing their work. They were overseen by the Diocese of Venice, which is the case with any nuns or priests performing religious work inside Southwest Florida.

A diocese spokesman declined comment on Wednesday.

According to an e-mail sent to students at the university on Tuesday, the nun was recalled to Spain by her group in March "without an explanation to the university or the Diocese of Venice." In August, the e-mail states, someone alerted Bishop Frank Dewane at the diocese about the reason for the nun's removal from Ave Maria.

Healy said Wednesday the delay in learning about the reason for Sister Maria Elena's removal was a "major reason" the entire group was ordered off campus. He said if Home of the Mother had informed the university more promptly about the concerns, "it's possible" the group would have been allowed to stay on campus.

"Last week Bishop Dewane met with (university founder and Chancellor) Tom Monaghan and me to inform us of what had happened, and to provide guidance as to how to determine if there are other victims and help any student who might have been harmed," reads the e-mail from Healy.

He said the decision to "terminate" the university's relationship with the group was made with Dewane and with the university's trustees. Healy sent a second e-mail on Wednesday to inform students of the procedure for reporting any incidents, and said no other students had come forward by Wednesday afternoon.

Home of the Mother is not a religious order on the level of the Benedictine Sisters or the Franciscans, but is regarded as a "Public Association of Faithful" by the Vatican. The apostolic group, founded in 1982, has just two communities in the United States, both in Florida. The other — soon to be only — community in the U.S., is located in Jacksonville.

According to the website, the group "has drawn both strong supporters and detractors in their time at Ave Maria, with some people admiring them for their evangelical fervor and others denouncing them as controlling and cult-like."

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