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VATICAN CITY – Dozens of women who attended Immaculate Conception Academy in Wakefield have written a letter urging the Vatican to close the program, saying the psychological abuse they endured has caused them serious physical, mental and emotional hardship.
The school is run by the Legion of Christ, which The Associated Press called “disgraced” in its article on the school, given the numerous scandals it has been involved in over the years. The school has no affiliation with the Diocese of Providence.
The all-girl Immaculate Conception Academy opened two decades ago to serve as a program for the Legion to expand its female consecrated branch, where more than 700 women around the world live like nuns, making promises of poverty, chastity and obedience, who then work for the Legion in its schools and otherwise.
The former students, who lived as teenage nuns, sent a letter to the pope’s envoy running the Legion to denounce the manipulation and distrust they say marked their time at the school. Some say that their experiences caused them to develop eating disorders, suffer from depression and in some cases, attempt suicide, ultimately leading to years of therapy costing thousands of dollars.
In an effort to warn potential students about the program’s schools in the U.S., Spain and Mexico, 77 women signed the letter and created a blog (http://www.49weeks.blogspot.com/) detailing their experiences. Some who have not yet blogged also came forward to share their stories in an effort to create awareness about the school.
“Two consecrated women told my best friend I was going and then came to my house and said she was going,” said Lauren McCool, who attended Immaculate Conception Academy from 1997-1999. McCool, who is now 30 and lives in Seattle, said she and her friend essentially agreed to go to the school based on a lie.
She described the schedule as “very rigorous,” adding that every student carries around a day planner and that “every minute of your time is planned out, decided and scheduled.”
“People were happy to get sick to get a break from the schedule,” McCool said. “We asked other girls to cough on us or share the spoon of a sick girl to get sick.”
Sheila Connolly, who attended the school from 2000-2002, described the school’s rules in her blog (http://agiftuniverse.blogspot.com/p/my-rc-story.html) as quite strict, saying the girls had to ask permission for pretty much everything, from reading a book during free time to taking an aspirin. The girls’ letters home were read by “spiritual guides,” they weren’t allowed to have “particular friends,” only hang out in groups and could rarely speak to upperclassmen. They were also only allowed to spend about three weeks a year visiting home.
Despite the rigor and the rules, McCool and Connolly returned for a second year at the school.
The second year, McCool said, was even more difficult. She was pushed into being a “team leader,” leading other students and helping them “to be courageous about doing an apostolic,” meaning a mission. McCool said she also had to help with recruitment and starting groups outside of school, which led to a lot of traveling around the United States.
“It was not something I wanted to do,” McCool said of being a team leader. “I ended up calling home and having a nervous breakdown. I stayed in bed for a week and couldn’t move. For the rest of my second year, I wasn’t myself anymore.”
McCool returned to her family’s home in Georgia in the summer of 1999, before her senior year in high school. She then enrolled in a public high school but was still tormented by nightmares of being “trapped” for about two years. She still gets the occasional nightmare stemming from her experiences at the school.
She described returning home as a “culture shock,” saying that it was strange to return home as an 18-year-old after leaving at age 15.
“I was trying to fit in, be normal, wear pants again and talk to boys,” she said.
Her time there also affected her Catholic faith.
“I think that I associate being Catholic with my experience at that school, so I don’t really practice that faith anymore,” she said.
McCool said that a lot of her experience is behind her, but she did go through years of therapy to overcome it.
Despite the school, McCool said she loved Rhode Island, especially Point Judith and Narragansett.
“Maybe one day I’ll be able to make it back and separate it from my memories of that school.”
Like McCool, Sheila Connolly did not graduate from the Immaculate Conception Academy. But instead of leaving voluntarily, she was told, “God wants you to go home.”
During her time at the school, Connolly, who now lives in Virginia, suffered physically. She describes periods of intense headaches, developed a hacking cough and would often find herself short of breath. She said the school's leaders though she was faking it to avoid participating in physical activities.
When Connolly returned home, she continued to be involved in the Regnum Christi, a lay ecclesial movement associated with the Legion of Christ, as she battled depression and struggled to fit in. She went to college and met her now husband. However, her faith in the Regnum Christi movement was rocked when its founder Father Marcial Maciel was disciplined by the Vatican in 2006 amid accusations of drug abuse and sexual abuse. Maciel died in 2008. In 2010 Maciel was formally denounced by the Vatican following an investigation into Maciel's alleged double life, which included fathering a child.
Perhaps given the scandals pertaining to the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi, the Immaculate Conception Academy's enrollment has dwindled in recent years. Only 14 seniors graduated from the school last month. This has prompted the school to merge with another Legion-run program in Michigan. Students from the Immaculate Conception Academy will attend Everest Collegiate Academy in Clarkston, Mich., and participate in extracurricular activities through the school. They will live at a nearby retreat facility in Oxford, Mich.
"While addressing practical and current economic realities, we believe that the relocation from Wakefield to Michigan will allow us to continue to provide our consistent and character-maturing program of formation and discernment," wrote Caroline Wilders, former director of the Immaculate Conception Academy in an April 2012 letter to parents of the school's students.
In response to the letter sent by former students to the Vatican, Monica Trevino, assistant territorial director of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi, sent a letter to the consecrated women of Regnum Christi.
Trevino wrote, “Their concerns range in a broad spectrum and some of them are very valid: the effects of the life of the founder in the institution, the lack of freedom of conscience in choosing their own spiritual guides, the fact that they experienced a need of involving parents more in their discernment process, not having more experienced formators with the girls, lack of freedom regarding correspondence sent to them, etc.”
The letter continues, “As you well know, we are looking at all of these problems or misapplications in our pedagogy and have already made many changes in this regard following the guidance and indications of the Church.”
Trevino added that the program plans to change with the addition of more family communication for the students and the opportunity to experience the realities of the world by attending an outside school.
“Personally, I am saddened to think that some of the former precandidates were hurt and I would love for us to be able to reach out to them, and for them to have peace that some of these changes are in fact are being made,” Trevino wrote in the letter.
Margarita Martinez, current director of the Immaculate Conception Academy also provided a response to the alleged trauma detailed in the letter.
"We acknowledge that these women were hurt, and a number are angry about what they experienced," Martinez wrote in an e-mail.
She added that school officials are reviewing the rules of the program, including "what was tainted by the faults of our founder," referring to Father Maciel.
She provided examples of changes to the program, one being its move to Michigan, which she said will allow many of the girls, who primarily come from the Midwest, to be closer to their families. She also said they have extended the time of discernment, to allow for girls to seriously contemplate if the "call" to consecrated life is "authentic."
"While many have suffered, it is also true that not everyone has had the same reaction, or experienced the same level of negativity to his or her time in Regnum Christi," Martinez said. "We are listening to everyone's views, including those from the consecrated women still with us."