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Charges of abuse surface at Legion school in Rhode Island

VATICAN CITY — Dozens of women who attended a high school run by the disgraced ­Legion of Christ religious order have urged the Vatican to close the program, saying the psychological abuse they endured trying to live like teenage nuns led to multiple cases of anorexia, stress-induced migraines, depression, and even suicidal thoughts.

The women sent a letter this weekend to the pope’s envoy running the Legion to ­denounce the manipulation, deception, and disrespect they say they suffered at the hands of counselors barely older than themselves at the Rhode Island school. For some, the trauma required years of psychological therapy that cost them tens of thousands of dollars.

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A copy of the letter was provided to the Associated Press by the letter’s 77 signatories, a dozen of whom agreed to be inter­viewed about their personal problems for the sake of warning parents against sending their children to the program’s schools in the United States, Mexico, and Spain.

‘‘I have many defining and traumatic memories that I ­believe epitomize the systematic breakdown of the person’’ in the school, Mary told the AP in an e-mail exchange. She developed anorexia after joining in 1998, weighed less than 85 pounds when she left, and dropped to 68 pounds before beginning to recover at home. ‘‘The feelings of worthlessness, shame, and isolation that are associated with those memories are still vivid and shocking,’’ she said.

Mary, who asked that her last name not be used, blamed her eating disorder on acute loneliness — girls were prevented from making close friends or confiding in their families — and the tremendous pressure she felt as a 16-year-old to perfectly obey the strictest rules dictating how she should walk, sit, pray, and eat.

It is the latest blow to the troubled, cultlike Legion, which was discredited in 2009 when it revealed that its founder was a pedophile and drug addict who fathered three children. The Legion had subsequent credibility problems following its recent admission that its most famous priest had fathered a child and that the current Legion superior covered it up for years.

The Legion saga is all the graver because its late founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, had been held up as a living saint by his followers and a model of holiness by Pope John Paul II because of his ability to recruit men and money to the priesthood, even though the Vatican knew for decades that he had sexually abused his seminarians.

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Pope Benedict XVI took over the Mexico-based order in 2010 and appointed Cardinal Velasio De Paolis to oversee reform of the Legion and its lay branch, ­Regnum Christi. But the reform has not progressed smoothly, with defections from disillusioned members and criticism that some superiors remain locked in their old ways.

The all-girl Immaculate Conception Academy, located in Wakefield, R.I., opened two decades ago to serve as a feeder program for the Legion’s ­female consecrated branch, where more than 700 women around the world live like nuns making promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience, teaching in Legion-run schools and running youth programs.

Because of dwindling enroll­ment — 14 seniors graduated last month — the school recently merged with a Legion-run school in Michigan; in Mexico two programs merged into one that produced 10 graduates this year.

The school’s current director said that things have changed dramatically recently and that many of the spiritual and psychological abuses were corrected. But she acknowledged the harm done, apologized for the women’s suffering, and asked for forgiveness.

‘‘For any errors made by our order in the past, we do apologize,’’ said director Margarita Martinez. ‘‘We are sorry these young women have suffered and been harmed in any way.’’

In an e-mail response to AP, Martinez noted that not all students experienced the same ‘‘level of negativity’’ as those who wrote the letter, and that regardless the movement was listening to everyone’s experiences as it undergoes a process of Vatican-mandated reform.

Megan Coelho, 30, recalled how pairs of consecrated women would visit her regularly as a child in northern California where she was homeschooled; they told her tales of the wonderful high school in Rhode ­Island where she might find a vocation and grow closer to God. Coelho, who wanted to be a nun, left home when she was 14 to join.

By junior year, the occasional migraines she had became frequent and debilitating as pressure to conform to the rules and highly structured schedule increased. The ­migraines would paralyze one side of her body, making her collapse at times. She developed facial tics. Her eyesight became blurry.

‘‘As sweet as they [her consecrated directors] were, I was counseled not to tell my parents about it because then my parents would take me home,’’ she said, referring to the movement’s goal of keeping members at almost any cost. ‘‘No one contacted my family. Nobody took me to the ER or got me a doctor’s appointment.’’

Eventually, Coelho got so sick she returned home, and the migraines stopped. Feeling better, she returned, only to have a migraine her first day back. She left for good six months before graduation.

Coelho’s story is the first on a blog she and other former precandidates, as the girls were known, started this past spring, a seemingly cathartic experience since many had never shared their pain with onetime classmates. The blog, www.49weeks.blogspot.com, is an astonishing read, testimony to a twisted and cruel methodology applied to girls at their most vulnerable age, when even under normal circumstances girls are prone to self-esteem issues, peer pressure, and bouts of depression.

Not everyone suffered so much, and not everyone has joined the call to close the program; of the 270-odd people on a closed Facebook group that served as the basis for the blog, 77 signed the letter.

And by many indications, things have changed dramatically for the better at the school, with girls allowed more time with families and much less emphasis on sticking to the rules.

‘‘People who are going into the precandidacy and are starting out will not find the same experience as those people did,’’ said Sasha Jurchak, 25, who left consecrated life in May because she simply decided it was not for her, not ­because of any problem with the program.

Martinez said other changes include better reflection from counselors on when to invoke ‘‘God’s will’’ in requiring something of the girls. She disputed assertions that the school failed to provide adequate medical care for sick girls, saying the policy has always been to notify parents and get proper care.

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