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Legion reported two NH abusers, quietly discloses several more

For nearly two decades, the Legionaries of Christ brought children from all over the world to study at the all-boys Immaculate Conception Apostolic School in Center Harbor. The disgraced Roman Catholic order publicly acknowledged the school was also home to two sexual abusers.

NH Reporter has learned there are several more.

In December 2019, five years after the school closed, the order released its own internal report on allegations of sexual abuse, claiming that, in close to 60 years, just four Legionaries members stationed in North America had been credibly accused of sexually abusing children, meaning Center Harbor was home to half of all its abusers in the United States.

The Legionary commission’s report disclosed that Francisco Cardona and Fernando Cutanda both abused students at the Immaculate Conception Apostolic School. Both men were ordained by the order, but Cutanda has since been laicized. Cardona has since died.

At least four more abusers were recently reported by the Legionaries, or by the order’s representatives, to Center Harbor police for allegations going back decades. Two of the alleged abusers were priests at the time of the alleged abuse, and one was a man who was scheduled to be ordained a priest in 2004. Center Harbor police also received reports of students engaging in the sexual abuse of other students.

“We have probably gotten a dozen reports over the years,” said Center Harbor Police Chief Mark Chase.

NH Reporter is not disclosing the names of any of the accused men at this time.

Some of the reports were made to Center Harbor police as recently as August of 2020. NH Reporter has also obtained state documents detailing another allegation of abuse at the school that was investigated by the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office in the early 2000s. In that case, the then-head of the order in North America, and the founder of the Center Harbor School, Fr. Anthony Bannon, did not disclose the abuse allegation to authorities until he became aware of press inquiries, according to copies of the Attorney General’s investigative report and emails obtained by NH Reporter.

The school’s Dane Road property, with views of Lake Winnipesaukee, is currently for sale with an estimated value of $8.9 million. The Legion bought the buildings and property in the 1980s from the La Salette order, which had operated the campus as a seminary. Bannon was among the Legion priests who formed the Immaculate Conception Apostolic School, according to records with the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s Office.

The 1980s and 1990s were a time of massive growth for the Legion, which found favor with Pope John Paul II for their focus on vocations and Vatican II-style orthodoxy. Boys in grades 7 through 12 were brought in from all over the world to study at the school until its closure in 2015.

In 2017, a former student filed a federal lawsuit against the Legion for the abuse he allegedly suffered from Cutanda. The plaintiff said that, when he was a student at ICAS in Center Harbor, Fernando Cutanda, or “Brother Fernando,” a “supervisor, mentor, and spiritual leader” employed by theschool, repeatedly raped him in several locations on the school property.

The lawsuit states that, after feeling guilt and shame, the alleged victim told Legion priest Fr. O’Carroll what had been happening. O’Carroll, whom the legal documents describe as “in charge of ICAS at the time,” allegedly told the boy to say five rosaries “for his sins” and told him “God will take care of things.”

Fr. Fergus O’Carroll was head of the school during the timeframe mentioned in the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, “Brother Fernando” allegedly raped the boy again after he reported the abuse to O’Carroll. The school’s corporate entity, which is owned by the Legion, was dismissed as a defendant in 2017, though the Legion itself remained as a defendant. The Legion settled with the victim in October of 2018.

Chase said several alleged victims stopped cooperating with police after they received financial settlements from the order.

“Do I blame any victim for settling that way? Not at all. They should do whatever is best for them and their situations,” Chase said.

The Legion functioned as a powerhouse fundraising outfit, and at the height of its powers had more than $1 billion in assets and an annual budget of $650 million, according to a report in the Irish Times. One former Legion priest told the Irish Times that that money allowed the order’s disgraced founder, Fr. Marcel Maciel Degollado, to keep the order going whenever there was an allegation of abuse. Fr. Maciel’s name is listed along with that of ICAS founder Fr. Bannon’s in a registry of Panamanian and other off-shore companies.

Maciel was known to make cash donations to key Vatican officials, and he reportedly always traveled with $10,000 in cash, according to court testimony.

Maciel was reportedly addicted to drugs, fathered several children with at least three different women, and sexually abused some of his own children and others. As outlined in Jason Berry’s reporting on the Legion for the National Catholic Reporter, Maciel got away with his crimes thanks to the wide-spread corruption inside the Vatican.

“For years Maciel had Legion priests dole out envelopes with cash and donate gifts to officials in the curia. In the days leading up to Christmas, Legion seminarians spent hours packaging the baskets with expensive bottles of wine, rare brandy, and cured Spanish hams that alone cost upward of $1,000 each. Priests involved in the gifts and larger cash exchanges say that in hindsight they view Maciel's strategy as akin to an insurance policy, to protect himself should he be exposed and to position the Legion as an elite presence in the workings of the Vatican,” Berry wrote.

The Vatican’s own assessment of Maciel, leveled in 2010, is devastating in its frankness about Maciel’s true nature.

“The very grave and objectively immoral actions of Father Maciel, confirmed by incontrovertible testimonies, in some cases constitute real crimes and manifest a life devoid of scruples and authentic religious meaning. This life was unknown to the great majority of the Legionaries, above all because of the system of relationships constructed by Father Maciel, who was able skillfully to create alibis for himself, to obtain trust, confidence and silence from those around him, and to reinforce his personal role as a charismatic founder,” the Vatican statement reads. “Not infrequently a deplorable discrediting and distancing of those who entertained doubts as to the probity of his conduct, as well as a misguided concern to avoid damaging the good that the Legion was accomplishing, created around him a defense mechanism that for a long time rendered him unassailable, making it very difficult, as a result, to know the truth about his life.”

The 2019 report released by the Legion found that 175 minors were abused by 33 Legion priests world-wide. That figure includes 60 victims attributed solely to Maciel. However, none of the men named in the records obtained by NH Reporter are named in the Legion report. Three of those reports to Center Harbor police came in 2020. Gail Gore, a spokeswoman for the order, has yet to respond to numerous questions for this story, including whether the 2019 Legion’s self-report is accurate.

According to the Legion report, the vast majority of the victims were boys between the ages of 11 and 16, and of the 33 priests who have committed abuse, 14, more than 42 percent, were themselves victims of abuse in the Legionaries.

In the Legionaries minor seminaries, in addition to the victims of Maciel, 15 priests abused 65 victims, according to the report. Another 90 students were abused by 54 seminarians in formation, of whom 46 did not reach the priesthood, the report states.

Maciel died in disgrace in 2008, but Legion priests continued to celebrate his birthday as a holiday and members extolled Maciel as late as 2019. Under Pope Benedict XVI’s instructions, Vatican officials took over the order in 2010, and its constitution was reformed. Part of the reformation was the ending of the secret vows Legion priests took to never criticize the order or Maciel. Legion Priest Fr. John Connor is currently in charge of the North American branch of the order, and the Legion is once again allowed to operate under its own authority.

The Legion has instituted new procedures to deal with abuse allegations, and has published a new code of conduct for members. The order has made several reports to Center Harbor police since 2019, Chase said, though the information is usually not enough to bring a criminal charge.

“We're seeing that the Legion is meeting the letter of the law by passing on their information,” Chase said.

Most of the information now being shared with police concerns allegations of abuse that took place in the 1990s, Chase said.

“It was a sick period of time when these things were handled inappropriately,” Chase said.

In many cases, the Legion does not provide the names or contact information for the alleged victims, he said. When Chase’s investigators looked into some of the cases, they found the alleged abuser was nowhere to be found.

“It had clearly been the practice of the Legion to transfer abusers after allegations had been made,” Chase said. “In my opinion, people were sent out of the country for a reason."

Though some of the cases have been referred to the Belknap County Attorney for possible prosecution, Chase said these are difficult cases to pursue.

“To try and bring someone back into the country and try them 25 years later, that’s a tough case,” Chase said.

In the early 2000s, the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office investigated the Roman Catholic Diocese, uncovering decades of abuse and coverup. Though the Legion is not part of the diocese, one Legion priest was investigated as part of the Attorney General's efforts.

According to the investigation, in 2003 Bannon, then head of the order, had been receiving anonymous emails from a former Center Harbor student who alleged he had been abused by a priest stationed at the school. That priest was removed from the school and sent to the Legion center in Connecticut before Bannon contacted police.

Bannon told state New Hampshire investigators the priest had denied the allegations, and he offered to make that priest available for interviews. It is not clear whether the priest was ever interviewed by New Hampshire investigators. Bannon also claimed the dorms at the school were constructed in such a way as to discourage abuse, though it is not clear what that means.

Bannon notified state investigators about the abuse allegations after he learned that journalists with ABC’s 20/20 were investigating the alleged abuse and talking to the victim. In an email to New Hampshire investigators, a Legion official, presumably Bannon, expressed dismay that the television program would hold on to the abuse allegation.

“If I may be allowed a purely personal comment, I am appalled and disturbed at the thought that ABC was in possession of important evidence, which if true could pose a potentially significant danger to minors, and nevertheless decided not to alert us and/or the authorities immediately,” the Legion official’s email states. “Apparently they still have not told us all they know.”

This comment is part of an email in which state investigators were forwarded a string of emails between Bannon and the alleged victim. The name of the sender is redacted, though the context makes it seem likely that Bannon made the comment.

The victim, in the emails with Bannon, describes being brainwashed at the school, which is similar to other accounts from former ICAS students. The boys were not allowed to speak to one another unless given permission. They were discouraged from making friends at the school, as Maciel was reportedly fearful of cliques and discouraged friendship among the members of the order, including the students. The students were discouraged from talking to their parents about what went on at the school, and their letters home were read by school officials.

It’s not clear why the order closed the school in Center Harbor. Rev. Georges de Laire, judicial vicar for the Manchester Diocese, said the sale of the multi-million property will require Vatican approval, as well as an official opinion from Manchester Diocese Bishop Peter Libasci.

The order no longer has any operating facilities in New Hampshire, and it is unclear if they will be granted permission to come back again. The Legion, like any recognized Catholic order in good standing, requires permission from the local bishop in order to be allowed to operate.

“It’s up to the bishop to accept or deny any group coming into his diocese,” de Laire said.

Read more about the way Legion priests shaded the truth when reporting abuse to police, with the victim saying they lied to law enforcement.

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All photos and video by Damien Fisher

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