PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Documents released Friday shed light on the inner workings of a secretive and now-disgraced Roman Catholic order called the Legion of Christ, including new details on how the organization solicited money from an elderly widow, eventually persuading her to bequeath it $60 million.
The documents, previously sealed in a lawsuit brought before Superior Court in Rhode Island, include thousands of pages of testimony from high-ranking leaders at the Legion, its members and relatives of wealthy widow Gabrielle Mee. They are the first-ever depositions of high-ranking Legion officials and include how the order's former second-in-command learned in 2006 that its founder had fathered a child.
The No. 2 said he didn't go public with the news of the paternity because the founder, the late Rev. Marcial Maciel, had already been sanctioned by the Holy See for having sexually abused seminarians and forced into a lifetime of penance and prayer.
Pope Benedict XVI took over the Legion in 2010 after a Vatican investigation determined that Maciel had lived a double life, including fathering three children by two women. The pope ordered a wholesale reform of the order and named a papal delegate to oversee it.
A Rhode Island Superior Court judge said last year that the documents raised a red flag because Mee, a steadfastly spiritual elderly woman, transferred millions to "clandestinely dubious religious leaders." But they had been kept under seal until The Associated Press, The New York Times, the National Catholic Reporter and The Providence Journal intervened, arguing that they were in the public interest. The Legion had argued media coverage of the documents could taint prospective jurors if there was a trial.
The Legion scandal is significant because it shows how the Holy See willfully ignored credible allegations of abuse against Maciel for decades while holding him up as a model of sainthood for the faithful because he brought in money and vocations to the priesthood. The scandal, which has tarnished the legacy of Pope John Paul II, is cited as an especially egregious example of how the Vatican ignored decades of reports about sexually abusive priests because church leaders put the interests of the institution above those of the victims.
Mary Lou Dauray had alleged that her aunt, Mee, who died at age 96 in 2008, was defrauded by the Legion and unduly influenced by its priests into giving away her fortune. Her late husband was a onetime director of Fleet National Bank.
The Legion said that it didn't exert undue influence over her decision-making and that the gifts were made of her own will.
"Our actions with regard to Mrs. Mee and her estate were appropriate and honorable," Legion spokesman Jim Fair said. "We were respectful and diligent in carrying out her wishes in the handling of resources provided to the Legion."
In a separate lawsuit, Mee said in a 2001 deposition that she had "complete confidence and trust" in the Legion, despite never asking details of its activities.
Mee said she had met with Maciel and he told her the Legion was "in a crunch."
"We only ask God for what we need," Maciel said, according to her testimony.
She replied, "'And the angel Gabriel came down from heaven.' My name is Gabrielle."
She said she was never directly asked for money but it was "understood" that she'd help whenever the Legion needed it.
"When I, through the grapevine, hear that something is going on and they know it, it's understood if I can help, I'd be very glad to," she said. "Because I have total confidence, you see. Whatever they do is part of my life."
In other documents released Friday, the Rev. Luis Garza, the former No. 2 of the Legion, details for the first time how he confronted Maciel's mistress and daughter, starting in October 2006, after he became suspicious while visiting Maciel in a Jacksonville, Fla., hotel that June and seeing the two women there.
Both women confirmed Maciel's paternity, and Garza said he obtained the daughter's birth certificate as proof — listing the father as Jose Rivas. Later, it was revealed that Maciel used the same pseudonym with his other hidden family, a Mexican woman with whom he had two sons.
Yet Garza said he never confronted Maciel about his double life and didn't think it was necessary to share the news with the broader membership of the Legion or its lay movement Regnum Christi. He said he only told the Legion's superior and two other priests.
"I didn't think at the time that the fact that fathering a child would change in any way the way we needed to behave vis-a-vis Father Maciel or the actions that we needed to do," Garza said in the 2011 deposition. "Because we needed to comply with indications of the Holy See and also because there was an issue of privacy and respect for the mother and the daughter."
The Legion didn't acknowledge Maciel's children or the sexual abuse allegations against him until February 2009, about a year after he died.
Bernard Jackvony, the lawyer for Mee's niece, said taken as a whole, the depositions expose how the Legion knew by 2004 that the Vatican was investigating Maciel for sexual abuse and by 2006 that he had a daughter yet kept the information private. He argued that Mee never would have given the Legion her money had she known of Maciel's true nature.
"In terms of fraud, when you withhold information from people, that's the same as if you said something to them that's not true," he said.
Garza also confirmed he was a member of a committee of three Legion priests who met annually to decide how to distribute funds from Mee's trusts.
A Superior Court judge ruled in September that Mee's niece, Dauray, couldn't sue, but he noted there was evidence that Mee had been unduly persuaded to change her trusts and will.
Winfield reported from Rome. Contributing to this report are Associated Press writers Matt Brown in Billings, Mont., Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia and Chris Sherman in McAllen, Texas, and AP Projects Editor Brooke Lansdale in New York.