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

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Colm Keena

An Ir­ish priest played a key role in off­shore struc­tures hold­ing sub­stan­tial as­sets be­long­ing to the wealthy and 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.

The ‘so­ciopath’

Fr 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 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 Fr Ma­ciel was a “so­ciopath” and a “gang­ster”.

Fr Byrne be­came a priest in 1978 af­ter the order or­gan­ised re­treats for stu­dents of Dublin’s Synge Street School, which he at- tended. 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 Fr 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.

“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,”says Len­non.

Fr 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, said that when Fr 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 Fr Ma­ciel and “ter­ri­to­rial di­rec­tor” for the order in North Amer­ica. A spokesman for the order has said Fr Garza de­nies the al­le­ga­tion.

Fr Ban­non’s role

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 Fr 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 Fr 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.

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

A wealthy widow

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 Fr Ma­ciel in her case. Con­se­crated mem­bers of the or­gan­i­sa­tion have to com­mit to 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 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.

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

“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 Fr 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.

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.

Fr 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 Fr 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.

Fr 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 Fr Ma­ciel out of ac­tive min­istry and told him to lead a “life of prayer 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, Fr Ma­ciel went to live with his daugh­ter and the girl’s mother in a gated villa with a swim­ming pool in Jack­sonville, Florida.

Last rites

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

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

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

Fr Peter 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.

“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 Fr Ma­ciel’s modus operandi to “get close to peo­ple, do them favours, see that they were sorted”.

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

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


Far left: The late Mex­i­can priest Mar­cial Ma­ciel is em­braced by Pope John Paul II in 1991, 50th an­niver­sary of the Le­gionar­ies of Christ order. Left: Fr An­thony Ban­non in 2002. Fr Ma­ciel with novice Paul Len­non, early 1960s.

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