New Legionaries of Christ superior accused of mishandling priest allegations

Fr John Connor Fr. John Connor, LC. | Legionaries of Christ

Women who made allegations against a priest in the Legionaries of Christ say the religious order's newly elected superior general mishandled the situation, allowing the priest opportunities to cross boundaries with women even after complaints against him had been made.

But the Legionaries of Christ say that Fr. John Connor, who was this week elected worldwide leader of the group, has not been negligent in his oversight responsibilities in the religious order.

"He does, however, believe there is room for improvement when working toward a culture of zero abuse," Gail Gore, a spokesperson for the Legion told CNA Feb. 7.

Connor became the North American territorial director for the Legionaries of Christ in 2014. Three years later he received two reports about boundary violations on the part of Fr. Michael Sullivan, a priest of the order.

In that year, one woman reported that Sullivan had treated her in a way that seemed to cross boundaries, while she was still an adolescent.

The woman told CNA her family was involved in the Regnum Christi apostolate, and knew Sullivan because of his association with the group. She said she reported to the Legion that the priest would often ask her about her dating habits in ways that made her uncomfortable, or call her on the telephone late in the evening, and that one time "he came to my sleepover at a friend's house and wanted to have this three or four hour-long spiritual direction... it was him asking me about my relationships with guys that I had been dating and insisting to me that they weren't good enough for me."

While the woman said those things had made her uncomfortable in her adolescence, she only realized how inappropriate they were years later, in 2017, when a friend told her that Sullivan had also crossed boundaries with her, this time allegedly making inappropriate advances during marriage prep sessions and in text messages.

Both women reported their experiences to the Legion in 2017. They say they were told that the priest was sent for a week-long psychological assessment, and then heard no more about him.

After a week's psychological assessment, the priest resumed ministry, doing pastoral work and spiritual direction in Texas. "Despite having received an assessment that determined Father Sullivan was not a risk to minors, ongoing and frequent therapy was still provided to Father Sullivan," Gore told CNA.

In 2019, a different woman reported to Legion officials that Sullivan had "put his hands on me in a way that made it appear that he was romantically attracted to me," the woman told CNA.

She said that when she confronted the priest about it, he told her that he had acted in a similar way toward other women during his priesthood, and that he had been in an ongoing sexual relationship with one woman while he was a priest.

But the woman said that when she made a complaint to Legion officials overseen by Connor, they told her "repeatedly that they had had no idea that he had any issues with women."

The woman told CNA she asked the Legion several times if the priest had previously acted inappropriately with women and, despite the 2017 complaints, was told no.

A spokesperson for the Legion told CNA that the woman's account does not accurately represent the exchange.

 When the woman "made the report in late October [2019], she asked if Father Sullivan had a history of sexual misconduct with any other women. She was told that Father Sullivan had no history of violating physical boundaries or sexual misconduct. At the time that was true," Gail Gore of the Legionaries of Christ told CNA Feb. 7.

"in November of 2017, two women came forward stating strong concerns about Father Sullivan showing affection and favoritism toward one of them in her youth that continued into adulthood, and the other later in college, alleging that he crossed behavioral boundaries expected of a priest. He was not accused of crossing physical boundaries or sexual misconduct. This information was not disclosed to [the woman who made the 2019 complaint]," Gore added.

"Rather, the Legionaries of Christ reached out to the women who came forward in 2017 to notify them of the situation and that Father Sullivan was removed from ministry and sent for residential treatment," Gore said.

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Gore added that when the 2019 allegations were made against him, "Father Sullivan was interviewed and immediately removed from ministry on November 4, 2019 and an investigation into the allegations commenced. Father Sullivan is not practicing ministry. At this time, he is receiving in-patient counseling at a treatment center here in the United States and the investigation is still ongoing."

Gore says that Connor and the Legion handled the Sullivan situation with appropriate levels of communication and candor, including sending an open letter about the situation to all members of the Legion in December.

For his part, Connor has indicated his sense that more change is needed.

In a December email to one of the women who raised objections about Sullivan, Connor wrote that "Hearing your experiences first-hand has helped me understand how we could have handled this better and areas we need to address to make real changes to help identify the signs earlier and prevent this from happening to more people in the future."

The women who made allegations against Sullivan say that the religious order's handling of the situation has lacked transparency, and suggests that long-standing cultural and administrative problems in the order are not resolved.

In fact, Connor's election as superior general election comes during a time of widespread public criticism of the Legionaries of Christ, which reported in December 2019 that since its founding in 1941, 33 priests of the Legionaries of Christ have been found to have committed sexual abuse of minors, victimizing 175 children, according to the 2019 report.

The order was founded by Mexican-born Fr. Marcial Maciel, who himself abused at least 60 minors, according to the order, and is accused of using the religious congregation he founded to provide him access to abuse victims, and funding to support mistresses, children he fathered, and an alleged drug habit.

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Maciel's malfeasance was eventually discovered by Church authorities and he was sanctioned. The order was directed to revise its governing documents and policies, many of which were thought to promote secrecy, facile and unhealthy obedience, and tightly centralized control over funds and administration.

The order approved new governing documents in 2014, and has since been in the process of implementing them. Connor is elected to a six-year team, and charged with continuing the order's process of reform.

But critics have said that the process is window-dressing and insufficient, and some have called for the suppression of the institute.

Gore, however, told CNA that in her view, the order is working to address allegations of abuse and misconduct.

The group has a review board to offer advice on allegations made against priests, Gore said, and "we have high standards of conduct, and what is "inappropriate" may still be well within the law, but outside of the expectations, we have for priests in their dealings with others. In part because, when emotional and/or physical boundaries are crossed by a priest the harm that is done reaches beyond the victim."

There are fewer than 1,000 priests in the Legionaries of Christ, and the religious order runs schools in South and North America, and in Europe.

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