Associated Press Writer
REGNUM CHRISTI is a life regimented in excruciating detail, down
to the way they eat an orange. Silence is the norm, information is limited,
e-mail is screened, close friendships are discouraged and family members are
kept at bay - all in the name of God's will.
Known as consecrated women, they
are lay Catholics affiliated with a conservative religious order who dedicate
their lives to the church, making promises of chastity, poverty and obedience
similar to the vows taken by nuns.
But the cult-like conditions they endure so alarmed Pope Benedict XVI that in
May he ordered an extremely rare full Vatican investigation of the obscure
group, which operates in the
The life of those
known as "consecrated women" is regimented down to the way they eat
an orange, with silence the norm, e-mail screened and close friendships
discouraged. But these women are not nuns _ they are lay members of the
now-disgraced Legionaries of Christ order who dedicate their lives to the
Catholic Church. Their situation has so alarmed Pope Benedict XVI that in May
he ordered an extremely rare full
The alleged abuses came to light
during an eight-month Vatican investigation into the Legionaries of Christ, a secretive
religious order beloved by Pope
The women belong to the order's
lay wing, Regnum Christi, a global community of some 70,000 Catholics in more
than 30 countries who have families and regular jobs yet participate in the
mission of bringing people closer to Christ.
Only about 900 are consecrated -
nearly all women, but also a handful of men. They give up possessions and ties
to their former lives much in the way nuns or priests do. They adhere to
Vatican-approved statutes that require them to "voluntarily renounce the use of their capacity for
decision-making" - pledging unswerving obedience to their superiors.
In interviews with The Associated
Press, eight former members from the U.S. and Mexico told of enduring
emotional, psychological and spiritual abuse at the hands of superiors who told
them they would be violating God's will if they broke any rules. They said
their experiences left them, at least temporarily, unable to cope with real
life once they got out.
"I feel like I was brainwashed," said J., an American who joined the movement shortly after
graduation from a Catholic university in 1997 and asked that only her middle
initial be used. Like most of the women who spoke to the AP, she did not want
to be identified for fear of retaliation from the Legion.
"I really thought it was a
mortal sin to break any one of the little rules that were laid out by the
statutes or the directress," she said.
Four current members denied the
movement was a cult, saying the rules were aimed at creating uniformity while
fostering spirituality. Still, they acknowledged problems with the way women
were recruited, saying that 18-year-olds shouldn't make lifelong promises after
a six-week candidacy program.
"I think that what is
happening to us, even if it's painful, to be very honest I think it was
necessary," said Silvia Vernudez, a 37-year-old
teacher from Venezuela who directs a house for consecrated women in the
Philippines and was visiting the mother house in Rome.
"This is a crisis," she
said. "There's no way we cannot say that. But it's a moment of
The Vatican investigation of the
consecrated women is the latest step in its crackdown on the Legionaries of
Christ, founded by the Rev. Marciel Maciel in
Only after his death in 2008 did the
order admit publicly that he had fathered children and that the abuse
allegations were true, spurring the
Such inquiries have been carried
out only rarely, including the probe of
Former consecrated members told of
having their lives manipulated by strict rules that occupied nearly every
waking minute of their day and by an endless search for new recruits.
Nine years after she left the
movement, J. can still rattle off the time stamps that dictated her day,
starting with morning wakeup in which a woman would run into the dorm room at
5:20 a.m. and shout "Christ our King!" and the others would shout
back "Thy kingdom come!"
"5:20 a.m. to 5:50 a.m., get ready," J. continued. "Morning prayer from
5:50 to 6 a.m. Six to 6:30, morning meditation. Six-thirty to 7:05
Malise Lagarde, who left in August 2009
after 13 years, said she was reprimanded by her superiors when she asked
questions about Maciel's double life, and was told
that if she persisted, she would be putting her vocation at risk and abandoning
"Members are not allowed to question or think outside group-think,"
she said. "I know that members totally dismiss any discussion of the
Legion and Regnum Christi as a cult - I did when I was still part of it - but
it sure looks like one once you get out."
Mary, a 36-year-old American who
was consecrated in 1996 and left eight years later, still shudders at the
silence required of the women. Conversation was allowed only during certain
times of the day and there was no talking at meals, except on certain feast
"Inside, the life we lived
was a religious life that was even stricter than a lot of the convents in the
world," said Mary, who is now a married mother in the
Other former members recalled how
close bonding with other women was frowned upon, so they grew emotionally
dependent on their spiritual directors. Parents
could call only once a month and visit once or twice a year. Women who lived
overseas were allowed to return home every seven years.
The rules extended into every
facet of life.
Members were told how to eat a
piece of bread (tear off small pieces; never bite into it) and an orange (with
a knife and fork). They were told how many movies they could see a year (six,
selected for content); what television programs they could watch (news,
debates, some sporting events, no drama or music shows); and to refrain from
reading in the bathroom. Mail and e-mail
were screened. Women who made mistakes were often publicly humiliated.
While a highly regimented life
and isolation from friends and family are common for cloistered nuns and monks,
such extreme rules are highly unusual for a lay Catholic movement, according to
canonists and experts in religious law.
"There is not one community
I'm aware of that has similar rules," said the Rev. Francis Morrisey, a canon lawyer at Ottawa's University of Saint
Paul, who has written about warning signs in new religious movements.
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