I Lost My Brother to an Ultra-Conservative Religious Order

Director Zita Effra's debut documentary tells the story of how her brother joined the Legion of Christ.

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Mar 26 2018, 2:44pm

Zita Erffa (left) and her brother, László (right). Photos by Eva L Hoppe and Petruvski Film

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.

László Erffa had just graduated high school when he decided to join the controversial ultra-conservative Roman Catholic order, Legion of Christ. Just a few days after his decision, the then-19-year-old started his seminary education in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. His family was heartbroken—they worried they would never see him again.

The Legion of Christ was founded by Mexican priest Marcial Maciel in 1941. Former members have likened the order to a cult, and for decades allegations that Maciel had been sexually abusing seminarians were dismissed by the Vatican. Eventually, a 2006 Vatican investigation found him guilty of assaulting dozens of boys, some as young as 12. After Maciel's death, in 2008, two years after László joined, a second investigation found Maciel had fathered several children with at least two women.

The legion's problems didn't end with the death of its founder. In a 2014 United Nations report, the group was accused of deliberately alienating young seminarians from their parents—often restricting communication to just a few times a year. And as recently as October 2017, the then-head of the legion's Roman seminary was found to have secretly had two kids.

A few members have quit the order in response to the scandals—but László is still there. After over a decade of trying to convince him to leave, his sister Zita decided to make a documentary about László's life in the legion, to better understand his decision to stay. Her film, The Best Thing You Can Do With Your Life, ran at this year's Berlin Film Festival, and was nominated for the Documentary Film Prize. I spoke to Zita about the documentary and what it was like to lose her brother to a religious order.

VICE: How did you first hear about László's decision to join the Legion of Christ?
Zita Erffa: He just called and told me, and said that he'd already been there for three days. I spent half an hour shouting at him. The next time I spoke to László was when I saw him a year later, which was the first time he was allowed to have any visitors.

How did he find out about the order?
It was through our aunt, originally. The legion organized summer camps for teens, and one year, she asked us if we wanted to go. Our cousins were going, so my brother and I decided to just tag along. It wasn't weird—there was an hour of religious education each day, but aside from that, it was really fun. We went hiking a lot, did a lot of cool stuff, and had a lovely summer.

László Erffa

So were they trying to recruit you guys at the summer camp?
Yes. They have a youth club called ECYD, which is a Spanish abbreviation for "Education, Culture, and Sport." Physical activity is what distinguishes the legionaries from other orders—they pride themselves on being slim and fit. The people at the youth club were encouraging everyone to sign up. It already felt a bit cult-ish then, so, to me, it was very obvious that neither of us would actually do it. But I was wrong.

For a long time, I just couldn't understand why he had joined. I felt betrayed—I thought we had both seen right through these people at that summer camp, but all of a sudden, he had gone off and signed up. I hated the group for that.

What happened next?
He pretty much disappeared for the next few years. We were allowed to visit once a year and call three times a year. All the letters we sent him were opened and read by the order. After our first visit, about a year after his admission, my mother said that she would rather not have seen him because she found it so hard to see how much he had changed.

Legion members during prayers. Photo courtesy of Petruvski Films

Why didn’t László leave the order after it came out that Maciel had abused so many people?
The rumors about the abuse were already around when my brother joined the order. Many of the legion's leaders must have known about what Marcial Maciel was doing to these boys, but the legionnaires encourage each other not to tell on their superiors, no matter what.

How did you come up with the idea to make a film about László?
During my semester abroad at a film school in Mexico, I had to come up with a topic for a documentary. I considered doing it on the order in general, but I decided it would be more interesting to focus on my brother and his life with the group. He agreed to do it, so we stayed with his order in Connecticut, where he now lives, and filmed there.


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Why did the order allow you to film in there?
I think they were aware of their bad reputation and wanted to do something about it. Maybe they saw my film as a way of opening their doors to the world and showing that nothing out of the ordinary was going on inside.

But your film does show that life inside the legion is pretty strict and controlled.
Absolutely. For example, the order still doesn't encourage boys to hang out in pairs. The thinking is that seminarians will remain more loyal if everyone hangs around together in large groups. That's why, if you see them walking around in the park when they're on a break, all of them are always together.

Did doing the film help you better understand why your brother joined?
No, I'm still not completely sure why he did. But for the first time in years, I could actually talk to László properly, and he took the opportunity to apologize for running away so abruptly. It was also nice to meet the other priests, who were very warm and welcoming. That really helped. Eventually, I came to understand that at least he's happy, which is reassuring.

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