The Vatican has proposed giving hundreds of women who live like nuns within the troubled Legion of Christ order greater autonomy after a Holy See investigation found serious problems in their regimented communities.
The pope's delegate running the Legion, Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, said in a letter published Monday that the problems of the consecrated women of the Legion's lay branch were "many and challenging." Of particular concern is that they have no legal status in the church.
In a 2010 Associated Press expose, former consecrated women spoke of the cult-like conditions they lived in, with rules dictating nearly every minute of their day _ from how they ate to what they watched on TV _ all in the name of God's will.
The women described emotional and spiritual abuse they suffered if they questioned their vocation, and of how they would be cast aside if their spiritual directors no longer had any need for them.
The Vatican ordered the investigation after word of the abuses emerged during a broader Vatican probe into the Legion, a conservative order founded in Mexico in 1941 by the late Rev. Marciel Maciel.
After decades of denying allegations Maciel was a pedophile, the Legion in 2009 began admitting to his double life: that he sexually abused seminarians and had fathered at least three children with two women.
The revelations have put the Legion in a tailspin and cast a shadow over the Vatican since Pope John Paul II had held Maciel up as a model for his orthodoxy and ability to attract new priests and donations.
Maciel had created the consecrated branch of the Legion's lay movement Regnum Christi primarily as a fundraising tool and to provide unpaid teachers for Legion-owned schools. The consecrated women also run youth programs and work to recruit new members.
The members, who at their height numbered about 900 women and a few dozen men, make promises of poverty, chastity and obedience like nuns do, though they enjoy none of the legal protections nuns have that make it difficult for their orders to kick them out.
Legion officials have repeatedly declined to provide statistics on how many remain in the movement. Former members say many women have either left amidst the Maciel scandal or are taking time to discern whether they still have a vocation.
In his letter, De Paolis said those who remain are happy and providing a valuable service to the church.
"However, the issues regarding personal and community life that have emerged from this same visitation on an institutional level initially appear to be many and challenging," he wrote.
He said the women should have greater autonomy from the Legion, in both their personal and community lives, and that they need a legal status that corresponds to canon law.
They would, however, maintain a "link of participation" with the Legion.
De Paolis said the women would have to rewrite their norms, but that for now the statutes guiding their life that were approved by the Vatican in 2004 remain intact.
One of the great scandals about the consecrated women is that they were told the Vatican in 2004 had approved a set of over 1,000 rules dictating how they were to behave when, in fact, the Vatican approved only about 150 general norms.
Genevieve Kineke, who runs an active blog read by many former Legion and consecrated members, said she hoped the autonomy envisaged by De Paolis will enable current and future members to truly discern whether they have a vocation. Up until recently, some 18-year-olds would make their lifelong commitments to being consecrated after a mere six-week candidacy program.
"As long as the delegate relies on the existing superiors to guide his actions concerning these individuals, then we have a closed circle of conformity to the same methodology," Kineke said in an email.
While current consecrated members say they are happy and participating in the reform process, their choices haven't always pleased their parents.
Kelly Tuttle said she grieves daily for the loss of her 27-year-old daughter, who gave up a partial medical scholarship to the University of Dayton, Ohio to become consecrated in 2003.
"The Katie that I knew, I grieve for that Katie," Tuttle told the AP. "There's only the shell of her left. Because they've taken the person that I knew as my daughter, who was young and vibrant, intellectually alive and athletic, and they've taken that out of her."
"It's like she's dead and gone," she said.
Katie Tuttle declined to be interviewed, according to a Legion spokesman.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects spelling of Kineke. For global distribution.)