After the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation acknowledged abuse allegations made against its former U.S. leader, alleged victims say the movement has not addressed elements of its culture which, they say, allowed abuse to occur unchecked.
Several women who spoke with The Pillar about CL said they are glad that the movement has now publicly acknowledged the allegations against its former U.S. leader. But they also say that the movement’s new safe environment policies and procedures are not always taken seriously.
While some CL members suggested problems of culture are widespread, others said their local experiences have been positive, and suggested that problems in the movement were mainly centered around Chris Bacich, the former leader accused of abuse and manipulation.
CL has declined to comment on the matter, citing pending litigation.
Christopher Bacich, 53, is a former member of the Memores Domini association of celibate Communion and Liberation members.
From 2006 until 2013, he was the group’s U.S. leader, called the national coordinator. He also headed CL’s youth program, Gioventu Studentesca, in the U.S. in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In October 2023, a letter from CL’s current leaders acknowledged that Bacich has been accused of “sexual abuse, sexual misconduct, psychological abuse, and boundary violations perpetrated against some young adults and minors in our communities,” with alleged incidents occurring between 1997 and 2018.
The letter said that after receiving allegations in 2018, CL leaders initiated an investigation, which concluded that the allegations were “substantiated” and “based on credible evidence.”
In 2019, Bacich was banned from CL activities, and he resigned from the movement, even while maintaining that he was innocent of wrongdoing.
At that time, CL community leaders were notified of “allegations of sexual misconduct and boundary violations with minors and adults” which had been found credible.
Two other allegations were reported to the movement after 2019, and were determined to be substantiated, the movement said last year.
The October 2023 letter included an apology to anyone “harmed by these evil acts.”
It also indicated that the movement may have failed to take reports seriously in the past, expressing sorrow that “at times, those to whom concerns were reported were slow to believe and respond to the accounts presented to them.”
The movement said it has taken steps to prevent future abuse and respond appropriately to allegations in the future.
But some members say CL has not done enough to ensure that the spirituality and environment of the movement are understood in a healthy manner that does not create the risk of manipulation.
The Pillar spoke with 10 former and current members of Communion and Liberation, including six women who say they experienced psychological and spiritual manipulation, grooming behavior, and in some cases, sexual assault by Bacich.
The women were involved with Communion and Liberation’s youth program, Gioventu Studentesca, during the time when Bacich was its leader. Most of them lived in New York, where Bacich taught at a local high school and led CL events.
Those sources recalled that the youth meetings were fun, and they made good friends there.
“I always wanted a family that was just there for me, and that's what CL was,” one woman recounted.
Sources described Bacich as a charismatic leader with a strong personality – the kind of person who naturally attracted people to himself.
But he also had an angry side, they recounted. He had frequent explosions of temper toward people – both teens and adults – when they said or did something he did not like. He would scream at people and would attempt to humiliate them publicly when he disagreed with them, they said.
One woman recalled chatting and giggling with a friend when she was supposed to be paying attention during a gathering.
She said Bacich stopped the meeting to yell and curse at her.
“I almost threw up. And this was my constant experience in GS — just almost vomiting because I was getting screamed at,” she said.
“I always felt like I had stomach aches whenever I would go to GS because of the anxiety I had.”
Another woman said Bacich once slapped her in the face during a confrontation.
Still, Bacich was an influential figure, and his opinions were highly valued within the movement. He was part of a prominent CL family, described by one person as “royalty in the movement.”
He was personal friends with CL founder Fr. Luigi Giussani, CL members said, and he had a story of being miraculously cured of cancer as a child, which was sometimes viewed within the movement as a sign of God’s favor.
Several of the women said Bacich could be fun. And he made them “feel seen.”
Bacich was also physically affectionate, sources said. He would greet people with a kiss on both cheeks – a common European practice. But several said he would also scrape his beard stubble across their faces, seemingly intentionally, in a somewhat confusing gesture to teenagers. One woman said he would sometimes bite her cheeks when he greeted her.
They also said Bacich was known for his full-body hugs – he would squeeze teenage girls very tightly, to the point that they felt uncomfortable, several women remembered.
These actions often took place in public, they said, but no one seemed to question them.
Multiple sources said Bacich would defend his actions as a display of “preference.”
The concept of “preference” is a prominent theme in the writings of Giussani, who said that God makes his presence known in the world through preference – for example, through his “preference” of Mary to become the mother of Jesus.
But the CL members said that Bacich would use the concept to justify his practice of singling out particular teenage girls for special treatment.
One person who confronted Bacich about his behavior with a teenage girl said he responded angrily by saying: “This is what ‘preference’ is.”
“The other adults that I was talking to either were afraid to bring it up higher, or were denying it and told me not to worry, because Chris' preference for these girls is the way that they've come to know Jesus' preference for them,” the person said.
CL members who spoke with The Pillar said the special treatment given by Bacich to “preferred” girls often took the form of grooming behavior.
Sources recalled that Bacich “playfully” slapped one teenager on the butt.
One woman said he would routinely hold her face in his hands, look into her eyes, and tell her, “You have no idea how much I love you.”
A different woman said that Bacich once grabbed her face as he told her that she was beautiful, adding that physical beauty does not last, and that she should focus on the kind of beauty that does last.
“He would take these philosophical or religious concepts and be inappropriate with it, and normalize this inappropriate behavior,” she said.
“He would use spiritual concepts to manipulate and groom us into really, I think, what was his way of controlling us.”
This behavior continued for years, with numerous teens among Bacich’s “preferred girls,” sources recounted.
There was one girl in particular with whom Bacich became very close in 2012, several sources recalled.
Bacich threw her an elaborate birthday party, they said – far more extravagant than birthday parties for other students.
“Every time he passed by her … he would touch her shoulder and check in, and they would have a moment,” said one person who observed the relationship.
Another person noted that the GS group often sang songs together. One time, they sang “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You,” she said.
“And he would look her right in the eyes, the whole song, and he would be playing the guitar and it's like a whole group of GS kids, and he's just looking right at her with a twinkle in his eye.”
That summer, GS held its regular summer youth trip, which took place that year at Lake Tahoe.
Several CL members who were present said Bacich’s inappropriate behavior became more blatant on that trip.
They said Bacich was extremely affectionate and flirtatious with the girl. At one point, they said, when people were swimming in a lake, she sat on his shoulders during a game of “chicken-fighting,” and she later bit him on the shoulder, to which he responded playfully.
In 2013, concerns about Bacich’s relationship with the teen girl were raised to Fr. Jose Medina, who was at the time head of GS in the United States.
In a February 2013 email obtained by The Pillar, Medina summarized the concerns that had been raised to him, including allegations that Bacich had been seen “play-fighting in the water” with the teen girl, as well as giving her “an enormous amount of attention,” taking her alone on at least one day trip, and throwing her an “over the top” birthday party.
In his email, Medina indicated that he would pass the contents of the conversation on to Fr. Julian Carron, then-president of Communion and Liberation.
A month-and a-half later, Bacich announced his resignation as the leader of Communion and Liberation in the United States. But in his resignation letter, Bacich did not acknowledge the concerns raised about his behavior.
In an email to members, he said instead that he was inspired by Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign as pope just weeks earlier. He said he could not dedicate sufficient attention to the rapidly-growing movement in the United States while also working full time as a high school teacher.
But while neither Bacich nor other CL leaders mentioned the allegations, several sources in the movement told The Pillar that Bacich was forced to resign — from CL leadership and, soon after, from the high school where he taught — as a result of the reported allegations.
Furthermore, they said, leaders of the movement quietly placed restrictions on Bacich: he was instructed not to interact with youth at all, or even lead small groups. The restrictions were not made public at the time, and the exact extent of them is not clear.
The person who reported the concerns about Bacich said, in hindsight, that the lack of transparency about the allegations was disappointing, as was the failure to investigate further.
Although the girl in the report was not a minor – she was 18 years old – the person told The Pillar the report “was certainly enough to have launched an investigation” into Bacich’s conduct. That investigation, the person said, might have surfaced other problems earlier than they were eventually raised.
Instead, Bacich moved from New York to California at the end of that school year, ostensibly to pursue a graduate degree.
Over the next five years, one source said, “he kind of slowly started to creep back into the lives of everybody, but not at the youth level, just at the level of power.”
Because the sanctions against him were not public, the source said, Bacich continued to travel, organize events, and try to take on leadership roles in California.
CL members who spoke to The Pillar said Bacich was keenly aware of when teenagers in the youth program would turn 18, in some cases taking them on a special one-on-one outing – such as a hike – shortly after their birthday.
One woman said that Bacich would regularly compliment what she was wearing and tell her she looked cute.
“For me, it was like, ‘Oh, he's giving value, he's seeing me,’” she said.
Then, a few weeks after she turned 18, she and Bacich went to coffee to discuss her future plans for school. During the conversation, she remembers him telling her that she was “not like the other girls.”
Afterward, the woman said, Bacich was supposed to drive her to the subway station. But before getting in the car, he hugged her – very tightly.
“It almost felt like he was brushing up against me and he could feel, basically, my body,” she said. “The hug lasted maybe for five minutes, I would say. Then we got into his car, and he stared at me and I knew something was going to go down. At that moment, I started getting very anxious.”
She said Bacich pushed down her seat, climbed on top of her, and sexually assaulted her.
“He touched my breasts, touched my vagina, and he just held me down on that seat and I just shut down. And this probably lasted for 10, 15 minutes.”
The woman said she was assaulted by Bacich about four more times between 2010 and 2016.
After each assault, she said, he would tell her: “I'm so sorry. I'm a sinner. We're all sinners. Go to confession and tell the priest that you did something.”
“It made me think that it was my fault, and it just brought on this shame because I felt like I was tempting this person and I was bringing this on,” she said.
During this same time period, the woman said that Bacich would also initiate sexually explicit phone calls in the middle of the night. She said the calls came at least 10 times, and continued until 2017.
Again, Bacich would apologize after the calls, and would tell her to go to confession, she said.
“It was the same storyline over and over again. And it really basically, it just fucked me over to the point where I just became seriously depressed in college and anxious and was contemplating suicide. And in 2013, I stopped going to classes. I got suspended from college…And so my parents were like, what's going on? And I didn't even know what was going on.”
It was around that time, in 2013, that Bacich resigned as the head of CL in the United States.
The woman said she had no idea he was stepping down following other allegations against him. She said he continued to abuse her for several more years, while maintaining his reputation as an admired member of Communion and Liberation.
The woman said she was too scared to report Bacich.
“I was going to take it to my grave honestly, because yeah, it was just too much shame for me,” she said.
Eventually, she said, a friend helped her report Bacich to Fr. Medina in 2021. She was not aware that CL was already investigating allegations that had been received in 2018. An investigation into her allegations was opened in 2022 and ended in 2023, with the conclusion that the allegations were “supported by credible evidence.”
Late last year, the woman filed a lawsuit against Bacich, Communion and Liberation, and the Human Adventure Corporation. The Pillar has withheld the woman’s name at her request.
The lawsuit says that Bacich sexually assaulted the woman, and that CL was negligent in its failure to conduct any kind of investigation into Bacich’s behavior after it received initial reports of abusive conduct.
“[E]ven a cursory investigation would have given the Defendants’ clear and unambiguous notice that it needed to terminate [Bacich] immediately and notify the police,” the lawsuit states.
Bacich did not respond to questions from The Pillar about the allegations against him.
The person who had reported Bacich in 2013 said it is horrifying to think Bacich may have been able to continue abusing people for years after that report.
“It shouldn't have happened. It leaves me confused and disappointed and heartbroken and sad.”
The person who made the 2013 report did not push for an investigation at the time, but now believes one should have been carried out. Doing so may have revealed abusive behavior and could have prompted action to prevent further abuses, the person said.
CL leaders declined to answer questions from The Pillar, citing pending litigation. But one source close to the movement defended the group’s response to the 2013 report.
“Our understanding now is much more focused on transparency,” the source said.
But 10 years ago, before the reforms launched by the #MeToo movement and the Theodore McCarrick scandal, such allegations were often considered matters of internal discipline, and were not made public.
“Those who were in charge at the time got rid of [Bacich] immediately,” the source said. “They told him he couldn't do anything more with the GS, it was done and that he couldn't be teaching at the high school anymore. And that was done.”
Many of the women who spoke with The Pillar said they suffered significantly as the result of Bacich’s actions.
“I became so miserable. I lost a ton of weight. My studies severely regressed… I felt like I didn't deserve anything,” one said.
Multiple women recalled becoming depressed. Two said they contemplated suicide.
Several of the people said their faith has been shaken by their experience. Some are still involved with CL, while others said they have left the movement, but remain in the Church. Others are not practicing the faith anymore at all. Still others said their relationship with their faith right now is complicated, and they are struggling to trust God.
“I tried to continue going to Mass, but I would cry every week, because I struggled to understand my belonging in the Church, and that was such a painful experience,” said one woman.
“I have done a ton of therapy and have dealt with all of the psychological wounds from all of this…But the spiritual wounds, I haven't known how to address.”
“My whole narrative in life was like, oh my God, I'm so lucky… I'm so special. I'm so loved for this [special attention from Bacich],” she continued. “Facing the truth of what happened made me see how much that narrative was corrosive to my sense of self and spirituality, which still isn’t fully repaired.”
“I still am confused about my relationship with God, and how he let me suffer like this.”
“My image of God was extremely distorted,” said another woman. “My image of God was a person or a father that loves me, but also hated me at the same time.”
“I felt like…God gave me anxiety, God gave me my misery, that I deserved it, and that was God-given. And I had to do a lot of work both through therapy, but also through spiritual direction to realize that that was just such a lie. But I had learned that lie from Chris and did not hear other CL leaders correct his words… it paints a picture of how spiritual abusive this can be and has been.”
Many of the CL members who spoke with The Pillar said there were elements of the movement’s culture which allowed Bacich to thrive – among them, the practice of leaders exercising “preference” for certain teens through special treatment.
Sources gave mixed answers about whether “preference” is still practiced by leaders singling out individuals for special attention.
CL leaders declined to answer questions about how the notion of preference should be carried out properly, in alignment with the charism of the movement, and whether it allows for adult leaders to show an open preference for specific teens.
Some members of the movement also described a coercive culture, in which people were pressured to participate in events, and berated if they declined to attend.
Several described being afraid that God hated them, or was going to punish them, for missing a CL gathering. Choosing to step back from CL meetings for a while – or even to skip a single event – was viewed as the “wrong decision,” they said.
“Chris’ way of forming us was so anxiety-driven and so shame-driven,” one person said.
Bacich also attempted to control people, members said, telling people whom they were and were not allowed to date, and where they could go to college.
“A lot of the abuse was psychological,” said one person.
“He really acted like a godlike figure in my life and in the life of a lot of people,” said another.
Bacich was seen as a guru, and people – children and adults alike – vied for his favor and validation.
“For him, affection and praise was a currency, and he would give it out and hold it back as his way of conditioning us and kind of forcing us to behave the way that he wanted us to behave,” said one.
Members said they competed for his praise at meetings, and would feel worthless and dejected if they didn’t receive it. Several women said they felt pressure to be one of Bacich’s “preferred,” and if they were not, they felt unloved and unpreferred by God.
“This whole culture of competition and preference, it really ate me alive,” said one member.
“He treated the other adults the same way that he treated us,” said another person. “So they were subject to the same currency and the same humiliation, and he inflicted that same kind of influence on them.”
“He was a master manipulator,” added another. “There were people coming to his defense. A lot of this is also adults who were caught up in his cult of personality that were not listening to kids, about the abuse, but about the psychological side.”
Several members said they are unsure whether the problematic culture was created by Bacich, or whether he simply took advantage of flaws that already existed as part of the movement more broadly.
“I don't really know, because we gave Chris power over everything for years. So he deeply influenced the culture of CL in America. I don't know anybody who's really completely free of it,” one person said.
One source close to the movement told The Pillar he believes problems of culture were largely centered around Bacich, and were not present in a substantial way in other CL communities.
“Once we got Chris out of control, I mean, things really got healthy pretty quickly,” he said.
The source also said CL’s current leaders have taken significant action to evaluate the movement’s culture – through education at meetings, meditations, and spiritual exercises.
But other members of CL throughout the U.S. said they are not aware of these efforts.
Members who live in other parts of the country, away from the areas where Bacich was directly present, gave mixed answers about their experience of the movement’s culture.
Jenny*, a former member who was involved with multiple CL groups in the United States – none of which were immediately connected to Bacich – said the character of the different communities was largely dependent on their individual leader.
She told The Pillar that she benefited greatly from the writings of Giussani, as well as some of the friendships she formed in CL.
But she said she also witnessed “troubling dynamics” during her decade of involvement in the movement, including an attitude of arrogance and superiority over the rest of the Church, rooted in “CL’s larger emphasis on ‘fidelity to the movement’ as some sort of life solution.”
Jenny – who left the movement a few years ago – said she experienced a tendency to use self-referential coded language to indicate inclusion and signify status.
There was also, she said, “an unquestioned, celebrity-like status afforded to leaders within the movement.”
That culture sometimes led to favoritism by leaders, as well as the tendency to shame and belittle those who disagreed with a leader, she said.
“In any situation, what these leaders said and did was considered to be ‘for me’ (a common phrase used) and therefore not only permissible but necessary for our own growth and edification.”
In one community, Jenny said, the leader “had enmeshed, inappropriate emotional relationships with people in our group, using arguments, gaslighting, belittling, mockery, and strategic affection as a means of control.”
However, she said she was later involved in a community in a different city, which she found to be much healthier.
“It was naïve,” she said. “The system worked if there were good people in charge. They never thought to account for folks who were abusive.”
Meanwhile, Mike*, a longtime member of CL with experience in multiple U.S. locations – none of which were immediately connected to Bacich – said the idea of a coercive culture runs completely counter to everything he has experienced in the movement.
He said he has always experienced the movement’s emphasis on freedom being lived out in practice.
He added that he was shocked to hear the allegations that Bacich had used the concept of “preference” to justify abuse.
“I have never heard preference used that way,” he said.
Mike said that Giussani used preference to explain how people naturally develop human preferences for certain things and people, but should prefer God above all else.
“But the primary way that stands out to me is him talking about the experience of Christ's preference for us as part of election, the drama of redemption…Everybody who's baptized is preferred in that way.”
Mike said that as a CL member, he has been asked to participate in various events, but the invitation has never been presented to him as a sign of him being “preferred” by a leader. Rather, he said, it has been presented as a responsibility and an invitation to respond to an encounter with Christ.
Mike suggested that “privilege” as Bacich is accused of presenting it “doesn't square with the charism as it is lived in most places, in most walks of life.”
“It sounds like one of those things that's kind of a weird particularization of an aspect of the charism, but that would be weird to anybody I know that is living the adult experience of the faith in the movement… it's not the sort of thing that I would expect to typify living the movement.”
Part of Bacich’s influence stemmed from the fact that he was largely seen as carrying on the spirituality and authority of CL founder Fr. Luigi Giussani in the United States, sources told The Pillar.
Bacich had been beloved by Giussani, and was personally commissioned by him to spread the movement in the United States, they said.
A few sources told The Pillar that the concept of “charism succession” within the broader CL movement is part of what allowed Bacich to manipulate and abuse people with impunity.
Last year, the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Laity, Family, and Life sent a letter to CL’s current president, Davide Prosperi, warning that it had received numerous reports of “worrying confusion on the issues of charism, obedience and authority” within the movement.
“I would like to point out that the doctrine of ‘charism succession’–proposed and nurtured during the last decade within CL by those who were in charge of its leadership, with implications that are still being cultivated and fostered during public speeches–is seriously contrary to the teachings of the Church,” wrote Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the dicastery.
“Moderators and Presidents of ecclesial Movements do not receive the charism of the founder by personal succession and are not, therefore, its sole interpreters. If this were the case, we would be faced with an undue and misleading attempt at appropriation and personalization of the charism by those who have been entrusted the role of guide; this would lead to self-referentiality that is not permissible in the Church.”
The 2022 letter came amid an ongoing discussion between the movement and Vatican in recent years.
In 2021, the Vatican introduced a number of reforms for lay associations of the faithful, including term-limits for leaders, which prompted changes in the leadership of CL. The movement was also asked by the Vatican to revise its statutes to adapt to new norms.
Pope Francis has called on lay movements to be careful to avoid a “self-referential” attitude that fails to engage with the outside world.
Some sources who spoke to The Pillar said there has been some resistance within CL to the reforms introduced by the pope.
“There's still kind of that culture of, ‘Yeah, but we're friends. We can figure this out on our own’,” one person said.
Several people pointed to what they described as a kind of spiritual arrogance within the movement. Communion and Liberation is sometimes seen as superior to Catholics outside of the movement, they said.
Some sources told The Pillar that personal devotions and private prayer were sometimes criticized within the movement. One said that a prominent priest in the movement once denounced Eucharistic Adoration as overly pious and unnecessary.
There is a tendency in some parts of CL, sources said, for members to see themselves as so mature that they don’t need to follow the reforms being laid out by the pope.
“So many [were] saying basically, ‘Oh, well the Church just doesn't understand. We're so much more mature than that. We don't need that guidance’.”
In his 2022 letter to the movement, Cardinal Farrell specifically referenced a problem of “resistance to what the ecclesiastical authority has ordered.”
Prosperi, the president of CL, responded with a letter to all members of CL, calling for obedience and “full trust in the authority of the Church.”
Prosperi cited “instances of persistent resistance” and criticized “immature attitudes held by some of us.”
CL leaders declined to answer questions from The Pillar about resistance to Vatican reforms, and about whether efforts have been taken to consider its internal culture and address potential flaws.
But a number of the movement’s members said they believe that those broader elements of culture are important to address, if CL is to embrace authentic reform and renewal.
And while members said they are glad that CL leaders have now released a statement about Bacich and have instituted official safe protection policies and procedures, they are also concerned that these policies are not always taken seriously.
The safe protection policies for CL in the United States, which were adopted in 2020, require background checks for adults working with minors, and lay out procedures for reporting and investigating allegations.
They include a code of conduct that stipulates that adults should only meet with minors in publicly visible locations, and prohibits a variety of behaviors including sitting on laps or shoulders, prolonged hugging, frequent texting, and comments focusing on a minor’s appearance.
Members who spoke to The Pillar welcomed the 45-page document as an important step, although some said they wished it would include protections for vulnerable persons in addition to minors, and require more transparency in ensuring background checks have been carried out.
But some also voiced concern that there have been violations of the policies in recent years, including priests riding in cars alone with minors, failure to provide adequate chaperones for underage event participants, and a disregard for required background checks.
That concern, like the others, is not universal among CL members.
For his part, Mike said his experience has always been meeting at parish facilities, where diocesan safe environment policies were enforced by the parish even before CL had a formal policy.
“So for us, it was like, this is what you have to do to make this work…those of us who lived a parish life, these kinds of things aren't new,” he said.
And one source close to the movement argued that some failure to comply with policies will be present in any large organization, but said that CL does not have any particular problem with following safe environment rules.
He believes the leadership at this point has taken adequate action, through its “stringent” policies and efforts to reflect on the environment within CL, “including the education that's provided in terms of our meetings and meditations and spiritual exercises.”
“I don't think there are people like Chris around right now, and I don't think that someone like him could happen again,” the source said.
“I think now we live in an age where it would be difficult. We live in a Church where it would be difficult, and we certainly live in a movement where it would be difficult…The movement has grown too much, and people are too aware of that experience to let it happen.”
But several members and former members of the movement disagreed. They said certain elements of the culture within CL continue to create an environment where enforcement of policies is lax.
Part of the problem, they said, is the very informal culture of CL, as well as the heavy emphasis on the idea of friendship. As a result, there can be a sense that everyone is “among friends” at CL events, and formal safe environment rules don’t really need to be followed. Some also noted a tendency within CL to conflate morality with “moralism,” or to eschew careful adherence to rules and norms.
They said the movement needs to find a balance between living out authentic friendship according to CL’s charism and ensuring that adequate measures are taken to prevent abuse.
But, the CL members said, they fear the movement is not taking the time to examine its own culture and how it may need reform in the wake of the allegations about Bacich. They are concerned the leadership sees the problem as isolated, and the solution as limited to the removal of a single individual.
“This is what I think needs to happen,” said one person. “We need to really pick apart our attitude, our culture deeply.”
Several members also objected to what they described as a “culture of shame,” which they said contributed to their own hesitancy to report problems they saw.
“The language needs to change, and this cultural shame needs to go away,” one said.
*Names changed to protect source privacy.