Vatican City It’s 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 U.S., Mexico, Spain, the Philippines and a dozen other countries. The inquiry is expected to begin in the coming weeks.
The alleged abuses came to light during an eight-month Vatican investigation into the Legionaries of Christ, a secretive religious order beloved by Pope John Paul II but now discredited because of revelations that its charismatic founder sexually abused seminarians and fathered at least three children.
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 the late 1990s 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 growth.”
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 Mexico in 1941. Dogged for decades by allegations he sexually abused seminarians, no action was taken until 2006, when the Vatican sanctioned Maciel and ordered him to a lifetime of penance and prayer — though it did not say for what.
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 Vatican investigation.