Wednesday, September 7, 2022

The Sins of Omission Series: A Secretive Sect of the Catholic Church and Their Dark History of Child Abuse at a Center Harbor, New Hampshire School


By: Rich Bergeron

Sins of omission and sins of commission are both referenced in the Bible and often discussed together. A sin of commission involves the willful act of doing something that violates God’s commands in Scripture, such as lying or stealing. A sin of omission involves not doing what is right or failing to do as instructed.

     I am a former student of a Catholic elementary school, so tackling this story was particularly difficult for me. Although I do not routinely worship anymore, I am very familiar with the values, principles and commandments of the Catholic religion. I am grateful to have them as part of my moral core today. 

     I was also very lucky to be inspired by a young priest who was only with my school for a short time. He took normally formulaic and stale masses and used stories from his own life to jazz them up. He provided brilliant examples of how to connect the everyday to the everlasting. 

    Our teachers were not very abusive at all, even though I attended St. Ambrose during a period when capital punishment was still in full effect for the real troublemakers. The most ruthless nun we had would dope slap us hard if we made any kind of mistake. She would literally add insult to injury by yelling out "YOU DINGHY" to the entire class so everyone knew who messed up. 

     A friend who often got me in trouble with him confessed to being struck on the knuckles with a metal ruler by our school principal once. That was really the worst example I heard of abuse there. There were urban legends circulating among us about "the paddle" the same principal wielded. I never saw those stories confirmed until I burped too loud in class. Having been in one of the more funny incidents she likely faced as a disciplinarian, she gave me the weakest slap possible with the paddle, which was just a typical ping pong paddle. 

     I was a good kid, and my family embraced the church. My mother helped rebuild the church when it became the target of an arsonist in the early 80s. She collected stained glass from the broken windows and slate from the old roof to sell at church functions as arts and crafts. We attended mass with her or my grandmother every Sunday for the bulk of my youth. I enjoyed always being picked for reading aloud in religion classes, and I became a voracious reader and writer in those years. 

     So, in many ways I am destined to write this story, which presents a side of the Catholic Church that is completely out of touch with the teaching I encountered. This series takes us from a small New Hampshire Apostolate School all the way to the Vatican and the papacy itself. Two popes play a part in this saga: John Paul II and Benedict XVI. This tale from the dark side of the church involves a mysterious and secretive religious sect that had a vast financial empire at one point. 

     The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists provided the best background on the financial network of this Catholic sect in recent years while researching "The Panama Papers.

     They call themselves the Legionaries of Christ, and the story begins with their founder, a man they still refer to as "Father" despite his epic sins. We will not stoop to glorify him with that title in our writing here. We will refer to him as "The Founder" or "Maciel" throughout this series. If you would like to know his full name, Google "Legionaries of Christ Founder."

Pope John Paul II (seated at right) likely knew about much of the worst allegations regarding Maciel (left) when the above photo was taken. You can just about read the disgust and disdain on his facial expression. His left hand even looks poised to flip the founder "the bird."

      The founder himself abused at least 60 victims according to reports produced by the sect's own investigation, which they hired a company called "Praesidium" to accomplish. At least 17 of his victims went on to commit abuses themselves. And these are just the numbers regarding KNOWN victims and perpetrators. 

      I pressed a Legionaries of Christ spokeswoman named Gail Gore for answers about whether Praesidium itself cooperated with law enforcement or shared records from their investigations. Upon receiving this line of questioning paired with requests to confirm or deny some of my other preliminary findings, she ceased all communications with me. Prior to cutting off all communication, I suggested that the organization share their enrollment records with law enforcement. Her specific answer to my recommendation was troubling: 

     "Your suggestion about sending notices to all known current addresses for past students is acknowledged and will be considered by the territorial leadership should future allegations surface, thank you.

      In other words, it's not a priority to find new victims or truly discover the overwhelming depth and reach of this abuse scandal. What seems more likely to be the ultimate goal of sect leadership is appearing to the public as fully reformed and worthy of new donations to support their current, ongoing good works. So they appear to be reporting just as much as they have to. Meanwhile they are making exaggerated overtures about cooperation and coordination with law enforcement that is not supported by the evidence or the expected results of such assistance. I also reached out to Praesidium representatives for information and never heard anything back from them. I will expound on the full details of the back and forth between myself and Gore in a future installment of this series. 

      What disturbed me the most about my own very preliminary investigation is that four out of nine known abusers in the United States identified by the Legionaries did their damage in my backyard. The Center Harbor, New Hampshire based Immaculate Conception Apostolate School (ICAS) is in the same town my father owned waterfront property in during my high school and college years. Before I officially moved to this state, I enjoyed some of my best summer vacations at my father's condo just a couple miles from the grounds of ICAS where other young children my age were being abused and raped by trusted authorities they believed were Godly men. I have the luxury of being able to remember those summers on Lake Winnipesaukee as if Heaven on Earth really existed. Those boys on the other side of town who experienced unspeakable horrors were living in a true Holy Hell at the same time. Their memories of that time most likely haunt and torment them to this day. 

     This report published by the Legionaries themselves outlines the extent of what their own paid-for investigations uncovered about the four Center Harbor abusers. One abuser died before justice came knocking at his door. Three others are still out there roaming the streets. We will explore the names and suspected locations of these abusers in a future installment. 

      I was not paid by the Legionaries for my investigation. Nobody is paying me to report these facts. This is a volunteer effort on my part. 

     I found that in some cases known abusers were purposely moved out of the country but able to stay within the Legionaries of Christ organization. Lawsuits filed in Connecticut alleged ICAS supervisors were told of the abuse and did not adequately address it at the time it happened. The sect reportedly had a strict policy to not criticize each other or their superiors for any reason at the time. There are even allegations that at least one abuser was in a position to supervise children again in Spain after being identified as a Center Harbor abuser and being removed from that campus. I found credible reports regarding victims settling quietly with the sect being required to sign confidentiality agreements with specific clauses forbidding future cooperation with law enforcement.

     The order claims to be in contact with at least 56 victims out of at least 175 that are known to the sect. Most of the victims were between the ages of 11 and 16 years old when they were targeted, according to the sect's own reporting. The perpetrators of this horrific abuse included 33 priests and over 70 seminarians involved in the order at the time. I asked Gail Gore to explain to me how the sect is helping in any meaningful fashion to prosecute these known offenders, and it was obviously one of those sensitive topics that led her to drop off the radar.  

      The harsh reality is that these numbers only represent the KNOWN quantity of abuse. There have only been a few major lawsuits from the United States (most were ultimately determined to be filed in the wrong jurisdiction) that cited the abuse in Center Harbor. Considering the momentum of the #METOO movement in this country and the prevalence of lawyers aggressively soliciting abuse victims of all kinds (even here in New Hampshire), it is hard to believe more victims have not surfaced and no major civil suits have been filed here. It's easy to understand why none of these victims would want to go public with their accusations at the same time. Therefore, it is likely there are a large number of UNKNOWN victims both spread across this country and the world. Just imagine how much harder it must be to call this behavior into question in a third-world country where the church is basically the same thing as the government.  

   The founder of this sect essentially bribed his supervisors in the church to accomplish the sexual exploitation of both his own flock of underlings in the sect as well as his very own out-of-wedlock children. Settling quietly with victims of so many decades of abuse amounts to delayed-payment prostitution at the end of the day. Offending LOC members should be serving jailtime for their crimes. All the money in the world couldn't make up for the complete lack of accountability and pure criminal negligence that created and fostered this chain of abuse.

     As Mother Theresa once said about feeding all of the world's poor and destitute refugees, the effort to bring abusers to justice should be just like "emptying the ocean with a teaspoon." It should never stop, as it is the kind of issue that never really goes away. Abuse scandals across the world connected to the Catholic Church have created permanent, lasting damage. Coverups of such abuse like the one I grew up reading about in the Boston area (immortalized in the movie Spotlight) make the actual abuse seem magnified exponentially. It prolongs the pain and anguish, knowing there were people in place who could have stopped it, but those supervisors and colleagues of the perpetrators stood still and silent instead. Reports were swept under the rug and victims were blamed for coming forward and accused of lying and fabrication. Priests guilty of child abuse and rape were shuffled around the Catholic Church chess board from Center Harbor just like they were from the Boston area and every other corner of the country the clergy sex abuse scandal touched. 

     The founder's son Jose Raul Gonzalez Lara grew up not really knowing who his father really was. He would eventually come to know his father's darkest side along with some of the founder's very few redeeming qualities. The abuse Jose sustained at the hand of his father was ironically coupled with constant reminders to attend church and be a good person. Jose's brother Omar was also abused by Maciel, who was his stepfather. Maciel told his two young boys lies about what he really did for a living. He made them think he was a CIA agent, visiting about every four months to see them and their mother, who was just 22 when Jose was born. Maciel was 60 years old at the time. He told their mother he was a detective for the Shell Oil Company. 

     Lara's abuse started with his own father plying him with pornography to get him aroused for the act. Maciel sometimes claimed he had to do the same thing for one of his own uncles who suffered from the same pain. So many years of basically paying his superiors to look the other way allowed the founder to be a masterful manipulator of victims and an expert groomer of abuse subjects. He had far too much practice at moving through the whole process from targeting to conquest to full mental control over his victims. 

“You can cry, the guys of the church can cry. Like Pope Benedict cried when he went to Malta. Tears dry. They dry. Your heart and your soul is affected all your life," said Lara about the ramifications of his own abuse in a 2010 interview with Jason Berry, a writer for the National Catholic Reporter.

     "I was afraid all my life," Jose recalled in the NCR interview. "Because my dad told me where he worked there were people really dangerous." It's an ominous statement with hindsight being 20/20. Maciel was one of those dangerous people. 

     Maciel groomed his own children just like he did the victims he found within the ranks of the Legionaries. Lara suffered repeated rapes and sexual assaults over nearly a decade at the hands of this depraved and evil "man of God."

     The founder often feigned injury that supposedly required alleviation through ejaculation. He assured his victims it was okay to help him with getting there. He told many of his young charges that Pope Pius XII even formally granted him permission to get his pain relief in this strange manner. It is a disturbing pattern of grooming that is painfully illustrated in the film "Perfect Obedience" available currently on Amazon Prime. 

     The dichotomy of such abuse perpetrated by one of the most trusted authority figures in a person's life has to be both confusing and humiliating at the same time. Lara still actually appreciates some of the values his evil father passed on to him through rote and repetition. The horrors he suffered could not completely sever the traditional father and son bond that develops naturally in most families.  When he and his brother found out about their father's death in 2008 they did weep for the loss of the better part of him they remembered. There were some genuinely good qualities of his father Jose recalled, but that fact would never drown out the damage his father did to him.

“The pain you feel. The rage you have inside your soul,” Lara explained. “[Maciel] stole my soul. I’m the soul that pushes on my brother. I want to help him. Even if I die, I want to help my brother first."

     Maciel's grip on his abuse victims makes the grooming strategies of more infamous serial abusers Jeffery Epstein and Harvey Weinstein look tame. One of the men Maciel victimized repeatedly as a young priest, Juan Vaca, later recalled saving his life when the founder passed out from injecting too much morphine. Maciel nearly drowned in the bathtub of a Moroccan hotel that fateful day back in 1957. I am sure some victims of this maniacal and depraved man who read this story will quietly wish that Vaca never pulled Maciel out of that water. Vaca's crusade to educate the masses and the Vatican hierarchy about the true nature of Maciel's character would eventually lead to a career death of sorts for the founder. Vaca suffered a backlash as well. It was still too little and too late when Pope Benedict XVI finally took action to separate Maciel from the church. 

     It took a supreme effort to expose Maciel once and for all, and Legionaries of Christ officials and leaders kept up a campaign of denial for years before their bubble burst in 2006. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Maciel's ultimate ouster from his own sect related to how the Catholic Church "punished" him. Pope Benedict XVI simply instructed the founder to leave the active ministry and live "a life of prayer and penitence." The Vatican also labeled him with quite an insult that must have deeply hurt his feelings. The church denounced one of their chief fundraisers and most prolific child abusers by stating for the record that Maciel lived a "life devoid of scruples and authentic religious meaning." 

     That hollow gesture by the Catholic Church in confronting the systemic abuse perpetrated by Maciel in such a weak and feckless manner left his son Jose with more questions than answers. 

     “Pope Benedict in 2006 moved my father, my daddy, or Marcial Maciel to rest. To pray. Why didn’t he bring him to jail," Lara asked in the NCR interview. It is a fantastic question I would ask the former pope myself if I could. 

     “Six million dollars was my inheritance that my dad promised us,” Lara explained. “And I will ask a question. If I offer you ten million dollars, would you let yourself be raped for nine years?”     

     This story chronicles abuse of both a physical and financial nature. It is a case that details how a culture of abuse can negatively impact a generation of priests. This series also explores how this controversial Catholic Church sect is able to circumvent tax laws easily in most circumstances without demonstrating the correct standing and needed community outreach to qualify for such exemptions. 

       I pressed Gail Gore to explain how the Immaculate Conception Apostolate School in Center Harbor could still be considered tax exempt. This was her exact response: 

"The tax exemption claimed is based on the use of the property. The property is used and occupied directly for religious purposes associated with the religious congregation of the Legionaries of Christ. Some uses include, but are not limited to, religious services in the chapel, spiritual retreats for Roman Catholic priests and young men in priestly formation at the nearby novitiate and college of humanities, religious activities, and training for priests and seminarians."

      The town of Center Harbor recently revoked the tax-exempt status of three properties owned by the sect in town due to a failure of the order to provide the right paperwork required to retain that status. I know it's a setback that might be quickly corrected by a small army of lawyers, so I am preparing a larger report for the State Board of Tax and Land Appeals as well as the Internal Revenue Service and their 87,000 new agents

     I would also like to make an appeal to my readers. If you would like to assist in this investigation in any way on a volunteer basis, it is a vast undertaking for one person to tackle. I could use all the help I can get. I am forming my own Legionaries of Truth that will hopefully include genuine abuse victims coming forward (your identity will be protected) to share crucial evidence and tell their personal stories. If you can be of any assistance in this regard or would like to cooperate with us in executing our investigative tasks, please contact me at or at 702-776-9786. 

CLICK HERE to read Part 2 of the Sins of Omission Series

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