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North Avondale says no to home for priests: 'This group won't have any respect for our way of life'

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Posted at 5:00 AM, Jul 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-07 18:54:14-04

CINCINNATI — An upscale Cincinnati neighborhood known for its inclusiveness is fighting against a Catholic religious order's proposal to establish a monastery in North Avondale.

The Legionaries of Christ has requested a conditional use permit to establish a residence for seven to 10 “Catholic missionary priests” at 3980 Rose Hill Avenue.

The city’s zoning staff recommended approval of the permit in advance of a July 7 hearing. But that hearing was delayed until later this month after residents complained they weren't properly notified.

Meantime, more than three dozen neighbors have blanketed the city with letters of opposition, citing concerns about parking constraints, the zoning process, housing values and clergy sexual abuse.

“I implore you to simply Google this particular order of priests,” wrote Jason Rich. “As a lifelong Catholic and father of a 6-year-old, there is simply no way this order should be allowed in a residential community of single-family homes.”

The Legionaries of Christ declined to offer public comment in advance of the zoning hearing but said via email it is “available to answer any private concerns from residents of the neighborhood.”

Founded in Mexico and now operating in more than 30 countries, the Legionaries of Christ is well known for the rise and fall of its founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel. The charismatic leader established schools and seminaries around the world through a well-financed lay association known as the Regnum Christi. But in 1997, a group of his former students accused Maciel of abusing them. That led to a Vatican investigation preceding his 2008 death and a 2019 report in which the Legionaries revealed Maciel had “at least 60 victims” since the 1940s.

Although the report didn’t reveal any names, it disclosed that 33 other Legionary priests “committed abuses,” including 18 who were still with the congregation in 2019. In March, the Legionaries released another report revising its numbers to 27 priests, 16 of whom remain with the congregation.

The group’s “Cincinnati community” web page identifies three lay missionaries, one religious brother and four priests, including the chaplains of Royalmont Academy in Mason and Camp River Ridge near Oldenburg, Indiana.

None of their names appear in records collected by the WCPO 9 I-Team's 2019 “Culture of Silence” investigation into clergy sexual abuse in Greater Cincinnati since the 1940s.

Their current landlord vouched for the group’s ability to be good neighbors in a May 17 letter supporting the conditional use permit.

“I have rented a single-family home in a residential neighborhood to the Legionaries for the past seven years,” wrote Michael Gates, president of Bearcat Properties of Mason. “They have maintained the home and property in good condition, always paid their rent on time, are agreeable with and respectful to the neighbors and have never caused a disturbance in the neighborhood.”

Cincinnati Archbishop Dennis Schnurr also wrote a May 18 support letter, citing the section of Cincinnati’s municipal code that allows for the establishment of convents.

“The Catholic Church has a long-standing tradition of religious men or women living together as a community,” Schnurr wrote. “I am writing to confirm that the Legionaries of Christ are a recognized congregation of the Catholic Church who have been residing in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati since 2012.”

The support letters were followed by a June 24 staff report siding with Opdyke Inc., a nonprofit real estate company affiliated with the Legionaries. Opdyke has a contract to purchase the six-bedroom home that was listed at $789,000.

“The proposed residential unit is appropriately located, designed and configured for a Convent and Monastery use,” wrote Douglas Owen, zoning plan examiner for the city. “The house will be utilized only for the living quarters of the members of the religious order and will function in the same manner as a single-family dwelling. No events or services will take place on site.”

Owen’s report said “neighbors have contacted Zoning Staff with concerns that the property would be used as a Transitional Housing facility for homeless people, people recovering from drug or alcohol addiction and/or people under criminal justice supervision. The applicants have stated that the property will only be used as a personal residence for 7-10 members of the religious order.”

Before the July 7 hearing was postponed, Cincinnati Zoning Administrator Emily Ahouse said the city was reviewing its recommendation to include new information provided by residents. So, it's possible the recommendation will change before the matter comes to a hearing later this month.

"This hearing is going to be put back on the docket as quickly as we can," said Hearing Examiner David Sturkey. "No more than three weeks."

The staff recommendation is one element considered at a zoning hearing, along with testimony from the applicant and nearby property owners, according to the city’s website. Those who don’t like a hearing examiner’s decision can appeal first to the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals, then to Hamilton County Common Pleas Court.

The report and letters of support riled some Rose Hill neighbors because they were dated before many residents were notified by mail about the proposed zone change.

“Our neighbors are trying to convey what is best for our neighborhood, but it appears it has fallen on deaf ears, as the zoning staff has already decided,” wrote Carolyn Gillman, who chairs the block watch committee of the North Avondale Neighborhood Association. “Why are you asking for a notice of public hearing when it is obvious you are not listening? This whole entire process is terribly disappointing.”

Other neighbors chimed in with multiple concerns:

  • “Many of our neighbors are LGBTQ; this group won’t have any respect for our way of life.”
  • “The home does not accommodate parking for 7-10 individuals; street parking regularly is unacceptable.”
  • “Having a group of seven to 10 non-related individuals that do not own the home themselves, nor have a steady source of income, calls into question how and if they will maintain the home.”
  • “If this variance passes, it opens the door to any and all groups wishing to also apply for a variance, thus possibly eroding the integrity of the neighborhood.”

Realtor Jack Wolking lives in North Avondale and represents the seller at 3980 Rose Hill. He said the Legionaries have assuaged some neighborhood concerns with a series of “porch meetings,” where residents asked questions and got to know their neighbors.

“I think one of the reasons people move to North Avondale is because it’s a very open, welcoming, inclusive neighborhood. There’s a lot of civic pride here,” said Wolking, sales vice president with Comey & Shepherd Realtors. “My main concern is that everyone’s voice gets heard. And predicated on that, a decision can be made that everyone can live with.”