A controversial Catholic group is taking its critics to court in the latest escalation of the decades-long battle between the Legion of Christ and former members of the Legion, some of whom have accused its founder of sexual abuse.
Former members of the order, known as Legionaries, have formed an online community to discuss, among other things, the sexual abuse allegations against the founder, Father Marcial Maciel.
Last year, the Vatican asked Maciel to give up all of his ministry appearances following accusations that decades ago he molested young priests in training.
The Legion has filed a complaint against one of the organizations, Regain Inc., and its president, a former Legionary, John Paul Lennon.
The complaint alleges that "private and proprietary materials have been stolen" and posted on the organization's Web site "as part of a concerted effort to wage a malicious disinformation campaign against the Legion." The items the Legion is seeking include private letters of Maciel's. The Legion estimates the material is worth $750,000.
Along with seeking the seizure of the property, the Legion is also requesting information related to the identities of individuals who have used the message boards using screen names.
Last week, a judge ruled that Lennon must turn over any property of the Legion's within 14 days, following a pre-trial seizure petition by the Legion.
"There was nothing criminal here," Lennon told the Blotter on ABCNews.com. Lennon said some documents circulating among the ex-Legionary community had been posted online, but as far as he knew, nothing was obtained improperly.
He equated the Legion's search for the identities of those posting on the discussion board to McCarthyism.
"It's a witch hunt," he said. "It is proving that the Legion is a cult which controls information, stifles freedom of expression and goes after dissenters."
Lennon and other former Legionaries began speaking out publicly when they became frustrated that allegations of sexual abuse against Maciel had not led to a formal investigation.
The allegations were presented to Pope Benedict XVI in 1998 when he was a cardinal. Some of the accusers said then-Cardinal Ratzinger attempted to cover up the case because of Maciel's prominence and close relationship with Pope John Paul II.
The then-Cardinal Ratzinger became visibly upset when asked about the Maciel case by ABC News' Brian Ross in April 2002.
"You do not ask such questions," he said and then slapped Ross's hand.
The Legion of Christ has long stood by Maciel, and they issued a statement on his behalf last year, saying that despite the allegations against Father Maciel, "he declared his innocence and, following the example of Jesus Christ, decided not to defend himself in any way."
A spokesman for the Legion said that because the litigation is ongoing, he couldn't comment further than what is contained in the complaint.
"Our job is just to love Christ, serve people and build the church," he said, "and we want to be able to focus on that."