Vatican City, Feb 6, 2020 / 08:51 pm (CNA).- During its general chapter meeting in Rome, the Legionaries of Christ religious order has elected a new superior general to lead the embattled religious congregation.
Fr. John Connor, LC, has been the North American territorial director of the Legionaries of Christ since 2014. He will serve a six-year term as superior general of the religious order of priests.
Connor’s election comes during a time of widespread public criticism of the Legionaries of Christ, which reported in December 2019 that since its founding in 1941, 33 priests of the Legionaries of Christ have been found to have committed sexual abuse of minors, victimizing 175 children, according to the 2019 report.
The order was founded by Mexican-born Fr. Marcial Maciel, who himself abused at least 60 minors, according to the order, and is accused of using the religious congregation he founded to provide him access to abuse victims, and funding to support mistresses, children he fathered, and an alleged drug habit.
In 2006 the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI, removed Maciel from public ministry and ordered him to spend the rest of his life in prayer and penance. The Vatican congregation decided not to subject him to a canonical process because of his advanced age. Maciel died in 2008.
In 2009, Benedict ordered an apostolic visitation, or worldwide administrative review, of the religious institute, and then placed it under direct Vatican oversight. Benedict ordered the congregation to develop and implement new governing documents and policies, after Church officials found substantial problems in the Legion’s formation and governance structures.
Pope Francis has continued pushing for reforms to the religious order.
The general chapter now taking place in Rome, and consisting of representatives of the order from its nine territories, is tasked with electing new leadership, and discussing how to address the ongoing controversy surrounding the religious order.
While the chapter is taking place, some have called for the Vatican to suppress the group, but Pope Francis has given no indication he plans to do so.
In Mexico and elsewhere, some victims of abuse perpetrated by members of the order have said the reforming the group is impossible without a wholesale change in leadership.
Some critics have suggested that reforms are mostly a kind of window-dressing, and some have questioned whether the order has a legitimate charism – a term used to describe the spirituality at the heart of a religious order’s identity.
Connor was ordained a priest in 2001. He worked in fundraising for the order, oversaw its Regnum Christi lay apostolate in New York, and served in other leadership positions.
In 2014, Connor told reporter John Allen that within the religious order were “men who are very capable of governing who weren’t associated with the founder.”
“For me, nonassociation with the founder is a very important issue,” Connor added, while emphasizing his hope that the order would commit to greater transparency.
Connor has faced criticism for his handling of misconduct allegations against a priest in the Legion, Fr. Michael Sullivan. In 2017 Sullivan was accused of “showing affection and favoritism” toward two young women; in one case the behavior was alleged to have begun when the woman was a high-school student, according to a 2019 letter from Connor.
Sullivan, who said he had not crossed “emotional or physical boundaries with any minors,” was sent for a psychological assessment and then continued in ministry. In late 2019, “another person came forward indicating that Fr. Sullivan crossed over the emotional and physical boundaries of a pastoral relationship with her and others,” the Legion said.
Sullivan was subsequently removed from ministry and admitted to some forms of sexual misconduct with adults, which “mainly affected young women.”
Once Sullivan was removed from ministry, a spokesperson for the Legionaries of Christ said that the priest should have been subject to restrictions on his ministry.
In December 2019, the spokesperson told KBTX that while the order does not believe Sullivan broke any laws, “in hindsight, we now understand that additional restrictions should have been placed on Fr. Sullivan prior to returning to ministry” in 2017.
The spokesperson added that “Fr. Connor has been meeting with those most closely affected, including the women who have come forward with claims in 2017 and most recently.”
In a 2018 letter to Legionaries and Regnum Christi members, Connor reflected on the scandal that has plagued his religious community.
“Over these last years of our renewal, I have been moved often in prayer by the fact that the Risen Jesus kept his wounds. You would think that a glorified body would be perfect and unmarred. But Jesus kept his wounds. There is a lesson in this for all of us,” the priest wrote.
“In the Legion’s 2014 General Chapter we had conversations about whether or not to change our congregation’s name: to definitively put our past history behind us and get a fresh start with a new name. Many were shocked the Legion did not change its name and formally separate itself from her scarred and wounded history. At the time I kept thinking, I am proud to be a Legionary; we cannot forget our history. The wounds we suffered in the past – as well as those we inflicted – are part of us. They are part of our story.”
Connor added that “as your territorial director, I have a tremendous desire for this gift of merciful healing for our entire spiritual family, extending also to those who no longer participate in it. I desire this healing because I know that wounds exist. Most hurts were not intended, but resulted from human weakness combined with imbalances in our past ways of thinking and operating from which our Lord continues to purify us.”
“I want to express my own sorrow for hurts I may have caused. I know that in the past I have been convinced of my own opinions and the direction I wanted to go and have often not stopped to listen to others, take their opinions to heart, or communicate the reasons why I make certain decisions,” he added in that letter.
There are fewer than 1,000 priests in the Legionaries of Christ, and the religious order runs schools in South and North America, and in Europe.