06/01/2010 08:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Parents Raise Concerns At School Run By Troubled Order

By Tim Townsend
Religion News Service

CHESTERFIELD, Mo. (RNS) A group of parents from a school run by a troubled Catholic order says the school coerces their children spiritually and undermines their parental authority--concerns they are bringing to the archbishop of St. Louis.

The concerns of Gateway Academy parents come in the wake of a Vatican move to overhaul the order, the Legionaries of Christ, after its now-deceased founder was accused of sexual abuse and fathering children out of wedlock.

Some Gateway parents are bringing attention to what they say is manipulation of their children, with the goal of funneling students into the Legion's priestly and consecrated life.

"Once they've got your kid, they own your kid," said John Gouveia of west St. Louis County, who sent two children to Gateway. "Their standard MO is to supersede the authority of the family."

Steve Notestine, a Gateway board member and parent of former Gateway students, is a member of the Legionaries' affiliated lay order, Regnum Christi, and said he had not seen the behavior the parents are alarmed about.

"Gateway is always interested in accommodating the role of the parents, because the parents are primarily responsible for the formation of their child, and Gateway just assists," he said.

Parents' concerns come in the wake of a May 1 report from the Vatican that said the Legion required an overhaul after revelations of child abuse by the order's founder, the late Rev. Marcial Maciel.

Gateway parents do not allege any sexual misdeeds at the school. But they say the school's officials, including Legion priests, regularly single out children who are susceptible to the Legion's message for advancement and rewards--positions on the student council, altar boy duty for a special Mass, or exclusive meals with Legion priests.

They say the Legion's intent is to replace the child's loyalty to his parents with a loyalty to the Legion and its founder. Any parents who question their son's loyalty to the Legion are suspect, they said.

Stacey White had two young sons at Gateway until 2008. She and her husband were uncomfortable with some of the one-on-one spiritual direction Legion officials gave Gateway students. When the Whites told the school they didn't want their son to go on a school retreat, school officials began asking the fourth-grader for reasons, she said.

"One of the (religious) brothers would ask him, 'Why aren't you going on the retreat? What's more important?"' White said. "Then he'd come home and ask us that question. It was disturbing."

Parents said Legion priests used guilt and the threat of banishment to hell if older boys resist a call to priesthood.

"If they're not giving God the first chance with their life, they're not being generous with God," said Molly Callahan, whose father, Jim Bick, helped found the school with a $2.3 million gift in 1992. She sent four children to Gateway.

"And if you're not being generous with God, you're not following God's will. And if you're not following God's will, you're outside of God's will and that's a mortal sin. And any boy brought up in a Catholic home knows the consequence of mortal sin."

The Gateway parents' concerns are similar to those raised in Baltimore, where Archbishop Edwin O'Brien told the Legion in 2008 to stop giving spiritual direction to anyone under 18 at a Legion-run school similar to Gateway.

"It's clear that from the first moment a person joins the Legion, efforts seem to be made to program each one and to gain full control of his behavior, of all information he receives, of his thinking and emotions," O'Brien told his diocesan newspaper last year.

Maciel formed the Legionaries of Christ in Mexico in 1941. Today, the order claims 650 priests and 2,500 seminarians in more than 20 countries and says it operates 162 schools and 15 universities around the world.

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI banished Maciel to a "reserved life of penance and prayer." Later, Vatican officials acknowledged that Maciel had fathered at least one child and molested dozens of seminarians. He died in 2008 at the age of 87.

In the last five years or so, bishops in California, Florida, Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio have banned the order or severely restricted its ministries.

Not all parents and alumni, however, share the concerns.

"It's always provided a great Catholic education, and I hope it continues to do so," said the Rev. Michael Houser, 28, now an associate pastor at Holy Trinity Parish in St. Ann, Mo., who attended Gateway from sixth to eighth grades, then went to one of the Legion's boarding schools for boys leaning toward the priesthood.

Dennis Coon, whose child graduated from Gateway, attended a school fundraiser in March. "I would love to see the school prosper," he said. "The teachers are top quality."

Mark Harford, another alumni parent at the fundraiser, said he was "very disappointed" in the revelations about Maciel, "but that's not a reflection of the school, it's a reflection on an individual sinner."

In an interview, Archbishop Robert Carlson said he was happy parents felt comfortable coming to him, and said he would decide whether to take any information he receives from parents either to Gateway officials or the Vatican.

"I look forward to a dialogue," he said, "and just like any pastoral discussion, I'll take it to its natural conclusion, whatever that might be."

(Tim Townsend writes for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in St. Louis, Mo.)