PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — A Rhode Island judge is allowing a lawsuit seeking millions of dollars to move forward against the disgraced Roman Catholic order the Legion of Christ.
The lawsuit, brought by the national anti-abortion group Americans United for Life, says the Legion interfered with an inheritance the group should have received from a wealthy widow. It says the Legion conspired to get Gabrielle Mee to cut the group out of her will and instead give her entire $60 million fortune to the Legion. Bernard Jackvony, a lawyer for Americans United for Life, said up to $6 million is at stake.
It's one of several legal battles facing the Legion in the U.S. stemming from the fallout of a sexual abuse scandal involving the order's founder, the late Rev. Marcial Maciel, and church officials. A church investigation determined Maciel sexually molested seminarians and fathered three children. The Vatican took over the order in 2010, and Pope Benedict XVI ordered a wholesale reform.
In its lawsuit filed last year, Americans United for Life says Mee had bequeathed it 10 percent of her estate in a 1991 will. She later changed her will to leave everything to the Legion. Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein last week rejected the Legion's request to dismiss the lawsuit, although he agreed to dismiss two claims: fraud and undue influence.
A previous lawsuit, brought by the same lawyer on behalf of Mee's niece, alleged that Mee was defrauded by the order, and said the leaders orchestrated an effort to hide Maciel's misdeeds from her aunt. Silverstein threw out that suit in 2012 because he found the niece did not have standing to sue. But in that decision, he said there was evidence Mee had been unduly persuaded to give the Legion her money. He wrote that Mee transferred millions of dollars to "clandestinely dubious religious leaders."
Jackvony called last week's decision a "landmark" in Rhode Island, and said it could be used in similar situations where vulnerable people have been exploited.
"This case opens up another remedy in situations where there's been elderly abuse," he said.
He said the Legion will now have to prepare for trial and to face the "sunshine" of a Rhode Island courtroom.
Legion spokesman Jim Fair said Monday the order was reviewing Silverstein's decision.
"We believe the Legion acted appropriately in its relationship with Mrs. Mee," he said.
Among other legal actions the Legion is facing, two of Maciel's sons have sued the Legion in Connecticut, alleging the order should have known they could have been sexually abused by their father given the well-documented, decades-old knowledge within the order and the Vatican that Maciel was a sexual predator, drug addict and pathological liar. A recent court document from the plaintiffs cites letters to the Vatican dating back to the 1940s from church officials attesting to Maciel's criminal double life.
Separately, in October, a former Legion student filed a lawsuit against the Legion's onetime No. 2, accusing him of sexual abuse. The accused priest, the Rev. Luis Garza, has denied the accusations. He stepped down from his position at a Legion school in the Philippines when the suit was filed in Connecticut, where the Legion had its U.S. headquarters until recently. It has since moved to Roswell, Georgia.
Winfield reported from Rome.