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Ex-Legion priest says he saw fiscal improprieties

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- A former priest for the disgraced Roman Catholic religious order the Legion of Christ said in sworn testimony recently made public that he witnessed financial improprieties at the order's operation in Rome.

Father Stephen Fichter, who left the Legion in 2000, testified that the group's founder used large amounts of cash without any accounting and he believed the founder and then-second-in-command gave gifts to people at the Vatican to curry favor with them.

But a spokesman for the Legion said the testimony concerned things that happened years ago and the order's accounting practices are now stricter.

Fichter, who is now a parish priest in New Jersey, gave the testimony in a deposition in November 2011 as part of a lawsuit brought by the niece of an elderly Rhode Island widow, Gabrielle Mee. Mee bequeathed $60 million to the Legion before she died in 2008.

The deposition was included in thousands of pages released last week after The Associated Press and other news organizations fought to unseal the court records in the case.

Fichter and others have discussed similar allegations in the past about practices by the Legion, a conservative order taken over by the Vatican in 2010 after a church investigation determined that its founder, the late Rev. Marcial Maciel, lived a double life: He sexually molested seminarians and fathered three children.

But the documents released in the Rhode Island lawsuit contain the first sworn testimony to publicly emerge about the allegations from Legion priests, including from the Rev. Luis Garza, the Legion's former No. 2 official, who is currently in charge of its North American operations.

Mee's niece, Mary Lou Dauray, sued the Legion after her aunt died. She said Mee was defrauded by an order whose leaders orchestrated an effort to hide its founder's misdeeds from her aunt. A judge ruled in September that she did not have standing to sue, but she appealed that decision last week.

Fichter was head of the order's general administration office in Rome from 1998 to 2000, a position he describes in his testimony as similar to a chief financial officer. He said he would give Maciel $10,000 cash whenever he left Rome, including $5,000 in U.S. currency and $5,000 in the currency of the country where he was headed.

"I do not know what he used that money for. He never gave an accounting of the money," Fichter said, adding that was inconsistent with what other order members would have to do.

In a sworn deposition given the same month, Garza, who has long been known to control the Legion's finances, said he did not know about the cash Fichter would routinely give Maciel until he read about it in the newspaper. When asked whether he or the Legion had done any audit of its finances to see if Maciel used Legion money for personal purposes, he said he didn't know.

Dauray's lawyer, Bernard Jackvony, on Friday questioned where Maciel got the money to support his family outside the Legion, and said Fichter's testimony indicates it was coming from the Legion, which got it from donors including his client's aunt. His client's lawsuit argues Mee would not have given the Legion money if she knew about Maciel's double life.

"Mrs. Mee was one of the largest donors ever," Jackvony said.

When asked Friday if there had ever been an inquiry into Maciel's spending, including what he spent the money on and how much, a Legion spokesman, the Rev. Benjamin Clariond, said it would be difficult to reconstruct since Maciel traveled widely, visiting Legion communities worldwide, and he died in 2008. Clariond said he doesn't know if an inquiry has ever taken place.

He said Maciel was not questioned about his use of order money at the time because he was the founder, and that in retrospect, Legion officials would have acted differently. He said that today there is a "great sense of accountability in the use of resources" at the Legion.

Clariond added that Mee gave her money to the Legion, not Maciel, which is different.

"We believe that our actions regarding Mrs. Mee and her estate have been both appropriate and honorable," he said.

The Maciel scandal has tarnished the legacy of Pope John Paul II and is cited as an example of how the Vatican ignored decades of reports about sexually abusive priests because church leaders put the interests of the institution above those of the victims. In his testimony, Fichter describes the Legion as "the favorite sons of John Paul II."

Fichter also says he acted as a "middleman" for gifts authorized by Maciel and Garza to people at the Vatican. In one case, the gift was made to a foundation. In others, the gifts were made to individuals. He does not specify the nature of the gifts or to whom they were given, but says the gifts were made to "thank the person for service rendered" and to "show appreciation."

When asked directly whether he believes Maciel and Garza were trying to ingratiate themselves with members of the Vatican, Fichter says he thinks they were trying to curry favor.

Clariond said Fichter's testimony reflects his own opinion. He said gifts were sometimes given on special occasions, for example, after an ordination of a group of priests or for Christmas.

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Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield contributed to this report from Vatican City.