Dozens of women who attended a U.S. high school run by the disgraced Legion of Christ religious order have urged the Vatican to close the program, saying the psychological abuse they endured trying to live like teenage nuns led to multiple cases of anorexia, stress-induced migraines, depression and even suicidal thoughts.
The women sent a letter this weekend to the pope’s envoy running the Legion to denounce the manipulation, deception and disrespect they say they suffered at the hands of counselors barely older than themselves at the Rhode Island school. For some, the trauma required years of psychological therapy that cost them tens of thousands of dollars.
A copy of the letter was provided to The Associated Press by the letter’s 77 signatories.
I have many defining and traumatic memories that I believe epitomize the systematic breakdown of the person in the school, Mary told The Associated Press in an email exchange. She developed anorexia after joining in 1998, weighed less than 85 pounds when she left and dropped to 68 pounds before beginning to recover at home.
The feelings of worthlessness, shame and isolation that are associated with those memories are still vivid and shocking, she wrote.
Mary, who asked that her last name not be used, blamed her eating disorder on acute loneliness – girls were prevented from making close friends or confiding in their families – and the tremendous pressure she felt as a 16-year-old to perfectly obey the strictest rules dictating how she should walk, sit, pray and eat.
It’s the latest blow to the troubled Legion, which was discredited in 2009 when it revealed that its founder was a pedophile and drug addict who fathered three children.
Pope Benedict XVI took over the Mexico-based order in 2010 and appointed envoy Cardinal Velasio De Paolis to oversee a whole-scale reform of the Legion and its lay branch Regnum Christi.
The all-girl Immaculate Conception Academy in Wakefield, R.I., opened two decades ago to serve as a feeder program for the Legion’s female consecrated branch, where more than 700 women around the world live like nuns making promises of poverty, chastity and obedience, teaching in Legion-run schools and running youth programs.
Because of dwindling enrollment – 14 seniors graduated last month – the school recently merged with a Legion-run school in Michigan.
Margarita Martinez, the school’s current director, said things have changed dramatically recently, with many of the spiritual and psychological abuses corrected. But she acknowledged the harm done, apologized for the women’s suffering and asked for forgiveness.
We are sorry these young women have suffered and been harmed in any way, she said.
Former pre-candidates, as the girls were known, started a blog this past spring, a seemingly cathartic experience since many had never shared their pain with their onetime classmates.
The blog, www.49weeks.blogspot.com, is an astonishing read – testimony of a twisted and cruel methodology applied to girls at their most vulnerable age, when even under normal circumstances girls are prone to self-esteem issues, peer pressure and bouts of depression.
Instead of finding support from friends and family, these teenagers were isolated from their families 49 weeks a year, told to unquestioningly trust their spiritual directors and confide only in them. Obedience to the minutest of rules, they were taught, reflected their acceptance of God’s will.
They write about their feelings of inadequacy, humiliation and loneliness, and of idolizing their smiling consecrated counselors. They paint the depths of their depression when seemingly overnight, they were told they didn’t have a vocation and should go home.
But not everyone suffered so much, and not everyone wants to close the program. Of the 270-odd people on a closed Facebook group that served as the basis for the blog, 77 signed the letter to De Paolis.
And by many indications, things have changed dramatically for the better at the school, with girls allowed more time with families and much less emphasis on sticking to the rules.
People who are going into the pre-candidacy and are starting out will not find the same experience as those people did, said Sasha Jurchak, 25, who left consecrated life in May because she simply decided it wasn’t for her – not because of any problem with the program.