The Legion of Christ has emerged from several years of high-stakes litigation in Rhode Island after a period in which the order founded by Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado sold off major property assets because of scandals surrounding his history of pedophilia and siring out-of-wedlock children.
In one case, brought by Paul Chu, the Legion paid an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed sum to end the litigation.
In the other, more high-profile case brought by Mary Lou Dauray, the state Supreme Court on Feb. 6 affirmed a 2012 ruling that she did not have the legal standing to contest the disposition of her late aunt Gabrielle Mee's estate and dismissed her claim.
Dauray sought the return of $30 million from the Legion, roughly half the value of the gifts and bequests from Mee in her later years and as specified in her will. In 2013, a judge revoked a protective order that made public a huge trove of sworn testimony by Legion officials, a rare viewfinder into the order's unsavory methods of grooming wealthy people for donations.
Both cases accused the Legion of engaging in tactics of fraudulent deception in bilking elderly Catholics.
Breaking News: Francis declines to answer Amazon synod's requests for married priests, women ministers. Read more
The case of Chu, who sought the return of more than $1 million from his father's estate, ended in "a settlement to which both parties agreed," his attorney, John Flanagan, told NCR.
Chu is the son of the late James Boa-Teh Chu, a retired Yale college professor and member of the Legion's lay wing, Regnum Christi. The lawsuit charged that the Legionaries' visits to Boa-Teh Chu were a "complete dereliction of their duties and fiduciary obligations as spiritual advisor."
The Legion courted Boa-Teh Chu "not to provide pastoral care or spiritual wellness but for the beneficial interest of the Legion of Christ ... and their interrelated entities carrying out its illicit fund-raising activities," Flanagan alleged in the court pleadings.
Paul Chu got the green light in court to proceed with the case; the Legion decided to settle instead of litigate further.
Although the Dauray lawsuit turned on similar allegations, the plaintiff's altruistic motives worked against her in the end. Dauray did not seek the funds for herself but for distribution to appropriate Catholic causes in keeping with her late aunt's support of the church.
The court held that because Dauray would not directly benefit from the contested funds, she did not have legal standing to seek them. Dauray's determination registered in 2011, when she paid $24,000 in legal costs to the Legion in order to amend her pleading to then accuse the Legion of fraud.
But the fraud charges did not sway the high court's focus on the definition of legal standing to contest a will.
However, the discovery testimony by Legion priests moved Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein of Providence to order the files released from a protective order in 2012.
"The transfer of millions of dollars worth of assets -- through will, trust and gifts -- from a steadfastly spiritual, elderly woman to her trusted but clandestinely dubious religious leaders raises a red flag to this court," Silverstein wrote in a summary judgment.
He ruled that Dauray did not have legal standing to sue because she did not stand to personally receive funds; but in response to "clandestinely dubious" Legion officials, he ordered the seal revoked on the voluminous testimony.
The Legion contested the release of the documents. An appeal by NCR, The Associated Press, The New York Times and the Providence [R.I.] Journal seeking access to the documents eventually prevailed. The documents were released Feb. 15, 2013, the week Pope Benedict XVI resigned. The files became publicly available to Chu and his lawyer and strengthened their case.
Dauray appealed Silverstein's 2012 ruling that she lacked the appropriate status to pursue her claim.
The state Supreme Court upheld Silverstein, saying the probate law in question "does not vest Dauray with standing because she is not a 'person legally interested in the estate.' "
Dauray did not respond to an interview request; however, in an email after the decision, she wrote: "Well, here you have it. I tried to right a wrong. ... I can be morally right, but there is the law!"
The ruling comes as a life preserver for the Legion, which is immersed in a huge fundraising campaign to build a luxury hotel and pilgrim's center on the Sea of Galilee at a site reputedly close to where Mary Magadalene lived.
Forfeiting $30 million would have come at great cost to the Legion's expansion plans. The road now seems clear for its project in Israel.
[Jason Berry produced "Vows of Silence," a documentary on Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, and is author of Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.]