The story of three women to EL PAÍS gives an account of how the congregation’s response has been under the orders of the priest John Connor
The Legionaries of Christ elected a new leader last February. American John Connor was appointed the new director of one of the most powerful congregations in the Catholic Church amid an internal process that promised a cleansing of pedophilia. The order presented him as the face of “renewal” after an era that had included 175 cases of child abuse. His appointment, however, raised blisters among a group of victims in Texas (United States), unhappy with the way in which the territorial leadership of the Legion for North America, led by Connor, has previously handled their complaints. In conversation with EL PAÍS, three victims accuse him of having manipulated them to cover up their cases and one of them assures that the Legionaries, under orders of the new director, lied to the police to discourage an investigation. “The fact that Connor presents himself as completely innocent is proof of the burdens of Marcial Maciel’s culture on him,” says Elena Sada, a former legionary who spent almost two decades in the religious organization.
Like Connor, Sada was brought up within the order by the founder himself, the Mexican priest Marcial Maciel, and his close circle. “He was trained by the same leader that I was trained by… and believe me, there is nothing transparent about that leader,” he says. “His priority is to protect the order over the good of the victims.” Heretic of his own organization, Maciel managed in a few years to structure one of the most economically powerful congregations with the most arrival at the Vatican. The enormous structure of the order was founded on a network of colleges and universities that reaches 19 countries. But the allegations of pedophilia that surrounded Maciel and the organization since its founding exploded late last year, when the Legionaries were forced to acknowledge dozens of sexual abuse. In an unprecedented event, and three days after Pope Francis ordered to suppress the papal secret on pedophiles, the organization published a report admitting that 175 minors had been abused within the institution, at least 60 of them by the founder. In that context and under the promise of change, they chose Connor as their guide to lead the renovation.
Veronica Vallone keeps a careful record of every meeting she has had with legionaries since reporting her case in October last year. Outside the world of the congregation, this 31-year-old marriage counselor had met Priest Michael Sullivan in February 2018. At the time, Sullivan was director of a youth program for the order in Texas. Together with her husband, they spent a lot of time with the priest, who ended up becoming his spiritual guide. In January 2019, Vallone and the legionnaire began working together organizing retreats for couples. Everything was going well until on October 20 of last year, when they were traveling together in a car, he asked her to stop at a chapel to pray in College Station (Texas). According to the woman’s account, inside the church he hugged and caressed her in front of a group of people. “People left and he put my hands on his pelvis, I felt his penis. I quickly removed my hands so I didn’t have to feel his erection, ”he recalls. “I left there shocked. I thought I saw myself as a daughter, ”she explains.
Veronica reported Sullivan 10 days after that Sunday in the chapel. What followed were weeks of “lies told to your face,” he says. “I can’t describe how gross the process was.” His complaint was taken by the priest Shawn Aaron, who at that time was a territorial vicar, a kind of representative of the territorial director. The woman told him what had happened and asked him to take two measures: that the accused be removed from the clerical ministry and that the Legion make the complaint public, “so that he could not harm any other woman.” At the time, Sullivan was working as a counselor at Texas A&M University. The congregation, according to the victim, promised to comply with his requests.
On November 4, Veronica says, Aaron visited her to inform her that Sullivan had admitted what had happened. He told him that they would remove the clerical state from the priest, but that they would not make the complaint public because “a group of professionals had recommended not to do so.” If someone asked about him, they would say he was “in therapy.” “I felt cheated,” she recalls. In the face of anger that caused him not to notify anyone of what happened, he called an acquaintance he had in the congregation to tell her everything. “That woman recommended that I speak with her sister, who had reported Sullivan in 2017,” he says. “I was stumped. I had asked Father Shawn if he had been reported previously and he had said no. “
That phone call marked the crossing of Veronica’s path with Ana – who has asked to keep her real name anonymous – for the first time. Ana had met Sullivan in College Station, Texas, in 2008. She was 12 years old and working with the Consecrated, the female branch of the Legionaries. The priest approached the family and spent hours at their home. “There we started a perverse relationship,” he says in a telephone dialogue with this newspaper. “We talked for hours, he advised me on love relationships and he always wanted to lock himself up with me. Throughout my adolescence he would text me at midnight telling me that he loved me, that we were both going to be a team and I thought he was waiting for me to turn 18 to marry me. “
The now 27-year-old woman blocked memories of her teenage years until 2016, when she attended a friend’s wedding and Sullivan was the priest performing the ceremony. “I talked to her and realized that she also had a sick relationship with him.” Both women reported it together a few months later. “It was hard for me, because I had loving feelings towards him, we had a romantic relationship when I was in school.” The congregation’s response to the complaint, he recalls, was to send Sullivan to therapy for a week. The woman, who was still working for the Consecrated, got Connor’s phone number and called him. “I urged him to show transparency and make it public and he replied that those who needed to know would know. It was very clear that he was not interested in transparency, he was covering it up. The same thing they did with Maciel ”, he says.
At the insistence of the three victims, Connor received them on December 9 of last year, just a few weeks before setting himself up as director of the Legionnaires around the world. At that meeting, Connor admitted to them that they had made mistakes in the complaint process against Sullivan. “It is clear that we do not handle this well,” he told them. The women reproached the “null response” to the first accusation. “With the second complaint we realized that he was serious and that we had to do something,” Connor replied. The then territorial director of North America acknowledged that, in addition to them, three other cases related to the same priest had appeared and promised them an internal investigation into what happened. This newspaper has requested through the Legion an interview with Connor without success – as well as it has also tried to obtain the version of the accused priests.
The internal investigation led two detectives to Veronica’s home on January 30 of this year. During the hour and a half that the meeting lasted, investigators sent by the congregation pressured the woman to find out if she had recorded the meeting with Connor and repeatedly asked for a copy of the recording so that it is not “subject to manipulation.” . “I realized they were actually investigating me,” says Veronica. “No one in the Legion is on the side of the victims. Connor and Aaron have lied to me all the time. And weeks after this happened, they were promoted. “
In December, the Legion finally released a statement in which he admitted that Sullivan “crossed emotional and physical limits,” language that victims criticize for its ambiguity. “I didn’t get a response from them until I threatened to shout it from the rooftops,” recalls Veronica. The woman is aware that her case may be considered less serious than the allegations of pedophilia that have emerged, but insists that it reveals a pattern conduct: “If they were not transparent with this, how can they be transparent with all the other complaints?” None of the victims reported what happened to the police, up to now, out of fear. The Legion has great weight in some of the Texas communities.
In February, Connor became director of the Legion and Aaron was the territorial director for North America, the highest authority in the United States. The Legion’s communications director in that country, Gail Gore, justifies the appointment by saying that the internal investigation they carried out “has uncovered no evidence of intentional deception or cover-up” on the part of the priests. For Elena Sada it is a sign that nothing has changed. It will continue like this, he insists, as long as they maintain “leaders whose ways were shaped after the criminal ways of their founder.”
Connor’s appointment revived another case of sexual abuse in the Legion that had not transpired. The ‘Ashley case’, as it became known within the congregation, was in 2015 one of the order’s biggest nightmares in Texas. Ashley, a woman who is now 39 years old and has also given her testimony on condition of anonymity, reported in October of that year – first to the Diocese of Dallas and then to the Legionaries of Christ – that she had been abused by the Legionnaire. Martin Pollock when she was 12 years old.