VATICAN CITY (AP) — A U.S. judge has thrown out a lawsuit contesting the will of an elderly widow who gave some $60 million to the Legion of Christ, the disgraced Roman Catholic religious order.
But Judge Michael Silverstein of Rhode Island Superior Court found evidence that the woman, Gabrielle Mee, had been unduly persuaded to change her trusts and will and give the Legion her money, detailing the process by which the Legion slowly took control of her finances as she became more deeply involved in the movement.
Pope Benedict XVI took over the Legion in 2010 after a Vatican investigation determined that its founder, the late Rev. Marcial Maciel, had lived a double life: he sexually molested seminarians and fathered three children by two women. The pope ordered a wholesale reform of the order after finding serious problems with its very culture, and named a papal delegate to oversee it.
The Maciel scandal has been particularly damaging for the church given that the Mexican-born priest was held up by Pope John Paul II as a model for the faithful, admired for his perceived orthodoxy and his ability to bring in money and new seminarians.
It was that high esteem that attracted Mee, a devout Roman Catholic, to the Legion in the first place, Silverstein wrote in his Sept. 7 order throwing out a lawsuit filed by Mee's niece contesting the will.
The niece, Mary Lou Dauray, had alleged that Mee was defrauded by the Legion and unduly influenced by its priests into giving away her fortune. Mee died at age 96 on May 16, 2008. Her late husband was a one-time director of Fleet National Bank.
Silverstein, however, ruled that Dauray had no standing in the case. Dauray's attorney, Bernard Jackvony, said his client was considering an appeal.
Legion spokesman Jim Fair said Friday the order was pleased with the ruling and believed it would prevail if it is appealed.
"Although the decision states that there are certain factual issues in dispute between the parties, the court did not decide any of those issues; they would only be determined by a trial," Fair said in a statement. "But since the plaintiff does not have standing, there will be no trial."
While siding with the Legion in the case, Silverstein took pains in his 39-page ruling to cite evidence submitted by Dauray's attorneys that detailed the process by which the Legion wooed Mee, bending the rules to let her become a "consecrated" member of its lay movement, giving her privileged access to Maciel and inviting her on special trips to Rome and Mexico.
He cited letters from the Legion thanking Mee for her money, emphasizing how her generosity was "pleasing both the Lord and assisting his mission" while also satisfying her late husband's wishes.
Such fundraising tactics have long been a hallmark of the Legion: critics have pointed to the process by which typically good-looking priests would shower wealthy patrons with praise, access and spiritual guidance while persuading them to donate their fortunes.
"The transfer of millions of dollars' worth of assets — through will, trust and gifts — from a steadfastly spiritual elderly woman to her trusted but clandestinely dubious religious leaders raises a red flag to this court," Silverstein wrote.
Maciel himself, whom Mee considered a living saint, gave her financial advice, and another Legion priest helped her with her estate planning, Silverstein wrote. He detailed how Mee, after she became consecrated, created a Legion-appointed committee to determine distributions from her trust and eventually gave the Legion full control over her finances.
Silverstein cited the Legion's own admission that consecrated women, who like nuns make promises of chastity, obedience and poverty, must donate half their assets to the Legion within 15 years and all their assets within 25 years.
At the same time, the Legion withheld full information from Mee about Maciel's misdeeds, which first came to light in 1997 with a newspaper article alleging the sexual abuse, Silverstein wrote. By 2006, Legion leaders say they knew of Maciel's child although they only made that information public in early 2009.
The Legion claimed in court filings that Mee was told about Maciel's double life, but Silverstein cited evidence disputing that and noted that she had cut off support to another religious movement as soon as she learned that one of its founders had had sexual relations with another man.
"Plaintiffs argue, and the court recognizes, that this could reasonably indicate how Mrs. Mee would have acted if she had known of the allegations (or the extent of the allegations) against Father Maciel," Silverstein wrote.
The Legion has been facing a serious slump in fundraising following the revelations of Maciel's double life. Properties have been sold off and schools have been closed as the Legion's once exponential growth has contracted, with dozens of priests leaving the order and fewer seminarians joining.
According to testimony cited by the order, the Legion' $35 million purchase of a property in Thornwood, New York, in 1996 was made possible by guarantees from the Legion and Mee that her trusts would pay the Legion's $25 million bank loan. The Legion announced in April it was selling the property, where seminarians studied philosophy, to help reduce its debts.
Michelle R. Smith in Providence, Rhode Island, contributed.
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