ROME – Last week the Vatican backed the decision made in fall 2021 by Bishop Felix Genn of Münster to dissolve a lay association in his diocese, whose foundations are tied to the Marian apparitions in Medjugorje, and which was charged with alleged spiritual abuse.
Recognized in 2004 by the Diocese of Münster as a private association of believers under diocesan law, the “Totus Tuus New Evangelization” group has roots going back to the 1980s and was founded by a German couple named Leon and Birgit Dolenec after the two said they experienced conversions in Medjugorje.
After visiting Medjugorje in the late 1980s, the Dolenecs formed prayer groups in Germany, and since 1994, they have organized several pilgrimages to Medjugorje each year with the aim of engaging young people in evangelization, and specifically, carrying forward the messages of Our Lady of Medjugorje.
The Marian apparitions in Medjugorje, which have not been approved by the Vatican, allegedly began in June 1981, when the Virgin Mary first appeared daily to six young people between the ages of 10 and 17, calling the world to penance and conversion.
The Totus Tuus group, having received inspiration from the Marian apparitions in Medjugorje, chose their name from the papal motto of St. John Paul II.
“Totus Tuus” is a Latin phrase that means “totally yours,” and was coined by St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort, who developed a spirituality of complete and total devotion to Jesus through Mary.
Yet despite the group’s avid Marian devotion and zeal for reaching young people and engaging them in the work of evangelization, former members over the years have criticized its leaders for demanding blind obedience and for prohibiting the free development of members and their private spirituality.
Former members have accused the group of sectarianism and spiritual abuse, prompting Genn to launch an investigation into the group in 2017 that culminated with an order for its dissolution last November. He issued a diocesan decree in November 2021 dissolving the “Totus Tuus New Evangelization” group after conducting a year-long visitation into the community over alleged spiritual abuse from 2017-2018.
According to a Nov. 5, 2021 diocesan communique announcing Genn’s decision to dissolve the community, the visitation was made after several members issued complaints. An initial investigation was launched and was followed by a nearly two-year discussion and review process with the community that culminated with a final report in November 2020.
In his 2021 decree, Genn, having reviewed that report, stipulated that Totus Tuus could no longer call itself a Catholic association. He forbade diocesan employees from participating in or belonging to the group, which was also barred from holding events or activities in the Münster diocese.
“Those responsible in the association Totus Tuus are not willing, ready, or able to see the serious shortcomings in the spiritual interaction with members of this community identified in the report on the one hand, and on the other to put an end to the serious grievances,” Genn said.
While no evidence of criminal offenses was identified, the report found serious problems in the group’s method of leadership and spiritual accompaniment.
“Through a person-focused and unreflective style of leadership, a climate was favored that quantified spirituality, explained criticism as evidence of a lack of spiritual maturity, and promoted closed elitism,” Genn said.
“Based on the results of the visitation and after detailed consultation, I have come to the conclusion that there were repeated actions and communication behavior in the Totus Tuus community that we now classify as spiritual abuse,” he said.
Without going into detail, Genn said the community had developed both structures and behaviors that “enabled and promoted such action.”
Genn described spiritual abuse as “behavior that violates boundaries in a pastoral context and spiritual abuse of power in church communities,” which are behaviors for which the diocese has “an attitude of zero tolerance.”
After issuing his November 2021 decree, the Totus Tuus group requested that the decree be withdrawn. That request was denied by Genn, who, according to a Nov. 21, 2021 diocesan communique, argued that “a not inconsiderable number of people have suffered serious damage from the Totus Tuus community.”
“In this respect, the communion has caused both serious damage to ecclesiastical discipline and a nuisance to the faithful,” he said, saying the specifics of the spiritual abuse were discussed during the visitation and the subsequent review process.
Totus Tuus then appealed to the Vatican. However, Genn announced July 14, in a diocesan communique, that the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life – which oversees lay movements and associations – had recognized the dissolution as “an appropriate measure given the damage caused” by the group.
“The ban was intended to prevent the risk of further harm. This is the conclusion reached by the Roman Dicastery,” Genn said, saying the reasons he listed for the dissolution “are confirmed by the dicastery and rated as ‘serious damage.’”
Genn said the Vatican’s decision was communicated to him July 13, and that all appeals to reverse the dissolution have now been exhausted.
During a June press conference on the results of an investigation into Münster’s handling of abuse cases, Genn listed the dissolution of Totus Tuus as one of several steps taken to tackle the problem of spiritual abuse and urged those who have suffered spiritual abuse in Catholic communities to come forward.
“We will continue to intensify our efforts in this field. The aim is to set up a clearing house staffed by experts from different professions,” he said at the time.
At the time of its dissolution, Totus Tuus claimed to have had 135 members worldwide.
Neither the group nor Genn responded to a Crux request for comment on the case.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen