The ‘gangster’ superior, the Irish priest and the wealthy widow

Paradise Papers reveal an Irish priest’s key role in the finances of a rich Catholic order whose founder was a sex abuser

 Marcial Maciel Degollado  is embraced by Pope John Paul II in a ceremony on January 3th, 1991, marking the 50th anniversary of the Legionaries of Christ. Photograph: Getty Images

Marcial Maciel Degollado is embraced by Pope John Paul II in a ceremony on January 3th, 1991, marking the 50th anniversary of the Legionaries of Christ. Photograph: Getty Images

 

An Irish priest played a key role in offshore structures holding substantial assets belonging to the wealthy but secretive Catholic order the Legionaries of Christ, the Paradise Papers have revealed.

The Paradise Papers are 13.4 million leaked legal and other files showing tax avoidance and other financial activity across numerous businesses from 1950 to 2016. They have been published over the past week as part of a global investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Fr Anthony Bannon (70), a former Irish superior of the organisation, appears in the leaked files from the Appleby law firm alongside the Mexican founder of the order, the late Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado, as well as on the corporate registry in Panama.

Maciel, a long-time friend of Pope John Paul II, has been condemned as a serial sex abuser of seminarians in his cult-like order. He used his order’s money to buy influence in the Vatican, and usually travelled with tens of thousands of dollars in cash on his person.

He also fathered children by two women, and used false identities. One former member of the order, Dublin priest Fr Peter Byrne, tells The Irish Times that in his view Maciel was a “sociopath” and a “gangster”.

The leaked documents name two companies in Bermuda that are linked to the Legionaries of Christ

Fr Byrne became a priest in 1978 after the order organised retreats for students of Dublin’s Synge Street School, which he attended. He did not know then that the order he was joining was “like a cult”, whose members revered the founder.

“I have no doubt he was an absolute gangster. He would be up there with the types of criminals you see on Netflix, the Narcos series. You can’t believe the lies that were involved. He had several women, several passports, different identities.

“Obviously he was a gangster from the outset. A sociopath. He had a capacity to assume identities, tell lies, fool people.”

Paul Lennon, a native of Cabra in Dublin who joined the legion in 1961, says Maciel was “probably the best Catholic fundraiser of the 20th century. They have a huge financial empire. There is a lot of money out there.”

The Legionaries of Christ at its height is believed to have had an annual budget of $650 million (€558.8m) and assets of approximately $1 billion (€860m).

“He should have been a financier instead of a founder of a religious order. He was astute about making friends with the very rich. People in Mexico mostly, but also in the United States.”

Favoured position

Maciel was known for using strategic “donations” to senior figures in the Vatican to secure a favoured position there, which he in turn used when targeting rich donors in Mexico and around the world. His Vatican connections are believed to have helped him over the years as he resisted allegations of sexual abuse.

In court testimony in the US, Fr Stephen Fichter, a former finance director for the legion in Rome, has said that when Maciel was travelling he would “always have to give him $10,000 in cash: $5,000 in American dollars and $5,000 equivalent in the currency of the country where he was travelling. I do not know what he used that money for.”

There are other allegations of abuse within the order. In the US in 2016, a law suit alleging sexual abuse in Mexico was taken against Fr Luis Garza, a one-time second in command to Maciel and “territorial director” for the order in North America. A spokesman for the order has said Fr Garza denies the allegation.

Fr Anthony Bannon joined the Legionaries of Christ in 1964, and went on to become “one of the big men” in the order, Lennon says. “He is major.”

Fr Bannon was a key promoter of the movement in the US for more than 20 years, was close to Maciel, and was the most important Irish member of the order, Lennon says.

“He really bought into the whole thing. They get money by hob-nobbing with the rich people in whatever part of the world they are stationed in. They don’t mess around with the small people.”

Fr Byrne says Fr Bannon was highly regarded by Maciel and by the congregation for the work he did building up the order in the US.

Fr Bannon, who is now working in Mexico with Regnum Christi, a secular arm of the legion, chose not to respond to questions from The Irish Times for this article.

A spokesman for the order in Rome failed to respond to requests for a comment about the use of offshore companies by the legion or the current status of its assets.

Leaked documents

The leaked documents name two companies in Bermuda that are linked to the Legionaries of Christ. The documents name Fr Bannon and Maciel among the contacts to be located at the legion’s head office on the Via Aurelia in Rome.

The companies are called International Volunteer Services, which was incorporated in 1995 and liquidated in 2013, and the Society for Better Education, which was incorporated in 1992 and liquidated in 2006.

International Volunteer Services was in turn owned by a British Virgin Islands company called ECYPH Ltd, and had a bank account with Citibank of New York.

Fr Bannon was also director of three companies in Panama, First Fountain Corporation, Dawn Developments Company and Southwest International Inc.

According to a book on the finances of the legion, El Imperio Financiero de Los Legionarios De Cristo, by Raul Olmos, the Panamanian companies were formed in the 1980s by Maciel when he started to put in place an offshore structure for his wealthy movement. Filings in Panama described Fr Bannon as the executive vice-president of the three companies.

Over the past decade Fr Bannon featured in a series of court cases in Rhode Island in the US where he was the executor of the will of a wealthy widow who, it was alleged, had come under undue influence from the order. The legal effort to have her will overturned failed.

The case involved the estate of Gabrielle Mee, who died leaving $60 million (€51.5m) to the legion in the US. Fr Bannon had power of attorney over her affairs while she was still alive.

In one of a number of judgments relating to the case, Judge Maureen McKenna Goldberg of the Rhode Island Supreme Court outlined in 2015 how Mee, who was pre-deceased by her wealthy businessman husband, first learned of the legion in 1985, and soon thereafter made a $1 million donation.

In 1991 she changed her will so that 90 per cent of her wealth would go to the legion. Later that same year she became a “consecrated woman” with the legion’s lay organisation Regnum Christi. Certain conditions that normally applied for such consecrations were waived by Maciel in her case.

Fr Anthony Bannon: he was given power of attorney to represent Gabrielle Mee in relation to trusts in talks with the Bank of America. By that stage she was aged 89
Fr Anthony Bannon: he was given power of attorney to represent Gabrielle Mee in relation to trusts in talks with the Bank of America. By that stage she was aged 89.

Assets

Consecrated members of the organisation have to make commitments about donating their assets to it, and Mee began residing at a Regnum Christi facility in Rhode Island.

According to the judge, the records show that when family members visited Mee they were monitored to some extent by other Regnum Christi members, and that Mee was denied a request she made to a “tribunal” that she be allowed visit family members outside Rhode Island.

A property Mee owned that she had allowed another religious group to use was taken back from it and given to the legion in 1994, when she learned that a man in the group had been accused of soliciting sex from another man.

Other changes to Mee’s will in 1994 were, according to the judge, drafted by Fr Bannon, at Mee’s request, and adopted by the Bank of America, which was administering trusts established by Mee and her late husband.

In 1996, Mee and her trusts were relied upon when the order borrowed money from the Bank of America for the purchase of a former IBM training complex in Westchester County, New York, known as Thornwood, for $35 million (€30m).

The following year the Hartford Courant published an article revealing that Maciel had been accused by nine men of sexually abusing them between the 1940s and the 1960s. The men also alleged that Maciel had abused upwards of 30 boys over the same period.

Silent

“The record is silent as to whether [Mee] was personally notified of the accusations by Fr Bannon or Bank of America,” according to the judge.

Fr Bannon apologised to the bank for not giving it notice of what was to emerge about Maciel.

In 2000, Mee further changed her will leaving more of her estate to the legion and replacing the Bank of America with Fr Bannon as executor of the estate. Fr Bannon had earlier been given a power of attorney to represent Mee in relation to the trusts in talks with the bank. By this stage she was aged 89.

In 2006, Mee directed a number of gifts to the legion. In September of that year she directed the Bank of America to give an additional $3,000 a month from her trusts to the order. In December she donated $1.2 million from her personal funds.

In 2007 she made a $590,000 gift and in May of the following year Fr Bannon asked the bank to transfer $400,000 from her account to the legion.

Two days after this transfer was made, on May 16th, 2008, Mee died at the Regnum Christi facility.

In May 2009, Fr Bannon filed a petition of probate on the will, but it was challenged by a niece of the deceased on the grounds of undue influence.

That and another case continued, via appeals, to run through the courts up to early this year. The niece failed on the grounds of not having an interest in the will, and a second case from an anti-abortion charity that argued it was entitled to 10 per cent of the estate was settled.

Irish schools

The legion’s global footprint includes two single-sex, second-level boarding schools in Kilcroney, Bray, Co Wicklow, which are in turn linked to the Oakline network of schools in Switzerland and the US. The order owns universities and more than 100 schools in Mexico, as well as schools and colleges in Latin America and the US.

Money was the explanation for Maciel’s ability to continue operating when there were serious allegations against him

Fees for boarding in the Oak Academy for boys in Wicklow are €41,785, while fees for the Woodlands Academy for girls are €42,529. The schools are mostly used by students from South America and Mexico anxious to improve their English.

The order formerly ran a novitiate here, as well as a boys’ club in Dalkey, Co Dublin. It used to visit Irish boys’ schools to encourage students to consider joining the order.

The members of the order who appear on Irish land registry records are all senior figures. Fr Bannon, along with fellow priests Fr Mateos Francisco Alvaro Corcuera and Fr Juan Manuel Duenas, were the owners of land in Kilcroney until it was transferred in 2014 to Fr Eduardo Robles Gil, the head of the legion since that year.

Maciel, Fr Bannon and Fr Corcuera appear on the land records in relation to property the legion had in Leopardstown and Rathdown. Co Dublin. In 2008 property at Leopardstown, where the order had a seminary, was transferred to the ownership of Fr Eduardo Vigneaux.

Money was the explanation for Maciel’s ability to continue operating when there were serious sexual abuse allegations against him, according to Lennon and journalists who have investigated the order.

Life of pray

Maciel was backed by Pope John Paul and other senior Vatican figures when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was investigating the sexual abuse allegations. After Ratzinger became Pope Benedict, the Vatican ordered Maciel out of active ministry and told him to lead a “life of pray and penance”.

“He was never condemned or found guilty in any way,” said Fr Byrne. “That’s been buried, and there has never been any true reconciliation with his victims. There is no transparency in relation to the whole issue of the congregation’s finances. No one knows anything.”

After the Vatican statement in 2006, Maciel went to live with his daughter and the girl’s mother in a gated villa with a swimming pool in Jacksonville, Florida.

Maciel died on January 30th, 2008 in his Florida home. Fr Corcuera, who had bought the property in which Maciel died, was at his bedside, along with other members of the order, Maciel’s daughter Normita, and the girl’s mother Norma Hilda Banos.

The order announced on its website that Maciel had gone to heaven. Fr Corcuera took charge of the legion.

In 2010, when news broke that Maciel had fathered children, the legion apologised to its followers and, eventually, to the victims of Maciel’s abuse. Benedict, meanwhile, had ordered an inquiry, and the order went into a type of receivership.

Fr Byrne, now a priest in Balally, Dublin, says it was difficult for the members of the order when the truth about its founder emerged. He was “stunned” and, along with others, experienced a type of crisis. Of the 83 Irish ordained into the order, 47 left.

Renewal

 

“We tried to get renewal, to get the victims recognised. Some of us left the order, some left the priesthood. There was a core group that resisted change.”

In hindsight, he says, the order was more interested in influencing the rich than preaching the Gospel. It was Maciel’s modus operandi to “get close to people, do them favours, see that they were sorted”.

Lennon left the order in 1984, and the priesthood in 1989. He now works as a mental health therapist in Guatemala.

He says the revelations about the sexual abuse of seminarians by Maciel did not upset Catholic conservatives in the US as much as the later revelation that he had fathered children. “The revelations about his women led to the fall-off in fundraising in the US.”

It has been reported that Maciel refused to make a last confession or receive the last rites.

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