PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The disgraced Roman Catholic religious order the Legion of Christ bent its own rules for a wealthy elderly woman while it also isolated her from some relatives, according to newly released court documents, and a lawyer says the moves show the order was intent on becoming the beneficiary of her $60 million fortune.
The Legion counters that widow Gabrielle Mee was independent, strong-willed and happy and was never coerced into anything. The fact she led a less-restrictive life than others in its community shows she freely gave them her money, the Legion argues. Mee died in 2008 at age 96.
The Legion, founded by the late Rev. Marcial Maciel, was taken over by the Vatican in 2010 after a church investigation determined that Maciel had sexually molested seminarians and fathered three children. The Vatican knew of Maciel's abuse for decades yet held him up as a model for the faithful because of the order's perceived orthodoxy and ability to attract money and vocations.
Part of a lawsuit filed in Rhode Island by Mee's niece, the documents include thousands of pages of testimony from high-ranking leaders at the Legion, its members, and Mee's relatives and friends. They were sealed until Friday, after The Associated Press and other news organizations successfully argued that it was in the public interest to release them.
Mee's niece, Mary Lou Dauray, sued the Legion after her aunt died. She said Mee was defrauded by an order whose leaders orchestrated an effort to hide its founder's misdeeds from her aunt.
A Superior Court judge ruled in September that Dauray did not have standing to sue. But Judge Michael Silverstein took pains in his order to detail 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.
Among the documents released Friday was a deposition from one of Mee's friends, Joanne McKosker, who testified how the two had bonded in the 1980s through their deep Catholic faith. She said she would visit after Mee moved into a Legion center in Smithfield, R.I. Around 2001, she asked Mee for a $5,000 donation for an anti-abortion charity. After Mee gave it to her, McKosker was prevented from visiting or calling Mee again.
"Months that went on, my trying to see her," she said. "I was getting, I was angry because I, I wanted to be still friends with her, you know, and I wanted, I felt she wanted, too."
The Legion says Mee had her own private phone line in her apartment and it never screened her calls.
Mee's grandniece, Jeanne Dauray, testified that a visit to her aunt left her feeling "something was amiss" in the restrictions that Mee lived under compared with other relatives who were members of other religious orders. For example, someone else always had to be in the room during the visit. Mee was also forbidden by a panel of Legion members from going to visit her sister, Fifi, in California, before Fifi died.
After they made the decision, "Gabrielle was visibly upset," Jeanne Dauray said. "She grabbed my hand very tightly and grabbed on to my arm and she said, 'Oh, I'm so disappointed. I understand that they, you know, they have to make their decision, but I'm so disappointed, I really wanted to see Fifi.'"
The order tried cutting her off from other potential beneficiaries of her money, Mary Lou Dauray's lawyer, Bernard Jackvony, has said.
"When you have a goose that lays golden eggs, you clip its wings and don't let it leave the farm," he wrote in one filing.
However, other family members, including nephew Stephen Kelley, reported that Mee seemed happy when they saw her, and that they could visit with her in private.
In fact, Mee led a far less restrictive life than the vast majority of the women at the facility, according to Heather Sellors, a former member of the community.
The Legion points out Mee lived in her own apartment, had newspaper subscriptions, cable television and her own Mercedes-Benz she could take out on outings. She often took the other members out to lunch or for ice cream and would shop at the mall or grocery store, Sellors said. The Legion argues in court documents that the fact that she paid her own way showed she had control over her own finances.
That would violate many of the rules that other consecrated women were forced to live under. Former consecrated women have said they lived regimented, isolated lives where nearly every minute of their day was occupied with chores and prayers, where they were forbidden from forming close friendships and were told how to eat, speak and interact. They said they were told that a violation of the most minor norm was a violation of God's will.
Jackvony said in an interview Saturday that the order's decision to bend the rules for Mee was designed to "gain her favor and keep her under their wing."
"The rules did not apply to her, and when you look at it the reason why is clear: because she had the capability of providing enormous amounts of money on a regular basis," he said.
Among the other documents that were released Friday were some that showed the group's former second-in-command testified he discovered that Maciel, the order's founder, had fathered a daughter in 2006, but never confronted Maciel about his double life and didn't share the news with the group's broader membership.
Winfield reported from Rome.