Faith or folly?

Birmingham Post-Herald on Caritas of Birmingham

Other languages: English, Italiano

By Sara Foss, Birmingham Post-Herald

Accusations of brainwashing and money laundering plague an area religious group as some unhappy members leave

Terry Colafrancesco started Caritas in Shelby County in 1987 to promote the experience of Medjugorje, the Eastern European village where six youngsters reported seeing the Virgin Mary.

Today, Caritas has grown into a multimillion-dollar enterprise, complete with families who live there year-round, a travel agency that offers trips to Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a publishing arm and even a farm. Caritas' mission of educating people about Medjugorje remains unchanged.

But recently the organization has come under fire by longtime residents who have left the community and others interested in Medjugorje. A lawsuit filed in California accuses Colafrancesco, the president of Caritas, of brainwashing residents and using funds raised from donors to purchase heavy equipment for himself.

The lawsuit, which describes Caritas as a cult, was filed by Phillip Kronzer, a businessman who has researched Medjugorje, and U.S.-based groups that promote the visions.

Whatever its critics may say, the Caritas group remains a leader in the Medjugorje movement throughout the United States, a movement that is itself controversial. Medjugorje-related groups like Caritas represent a fundamentalist-like strain in the Roman Catholic world, although the church itself has yet to authenticate the visions.

In the past couple of years, several families who once lived at Caritas have moved away, questioning Colafrancesco's leadership and motives. In 1999 and 2000, about 30 longtime residents left the community, including about 18 children.

Former residents complain about a grueling workday, inadequate education for the community's home-schooled children and the personal checks they were asked to write to Colafrancesco.

Former Caritas resident Steve Littiken, 44, said he brought his concerns to Colafrancesco's attention. Most of all, he said, he asked Colafrancesco to work as hard and live as they did.

Colafrancesco, his wife and six children live in a two-story home worth $118,400, according to 1999 county records, while other residents of the community live in mobile homes.

"I told him to live like us," said Littiken, who lived at Caritas with his family from 1992 to 2000. Today Littiken lives in Florida with his wife, Anna, and their seven children. They asked that the town they live in not be identified. For his part, Colafrancesco refuses to discuss former residents' complaints or other allegations.

Neither Colafrancesco nor the 40 or so people who continue to work and live at Caritas - which means "love" in Latin - responded to repeated requests for interviews. When a reporter visited Caritas, one current resident refused to accept a hand-delivered list of questions about the group's management for Colafrancesco.

"Terry does not do interviews," said Ruth McDonald, the resident. "Terry has always had the philosophy that he doesn't respond to people who say bad things about him," said Birmingham attorney Joseph Ritchey, who does legal work for Caritas. "In his mind, if he were to respond to criticism ... he's giving credibility to anything they have to complain about. ... Whether anyone thinks he's doing a good job or not, he's going to leave that to God."

Colafrancesco basically said as much in a letter former resident Pat Flynn received in August, in which he denied many of Flynn's complaints about his behavior. "I refute other remarks and actions, the letter said. I say it is slander and scandal-making."

Conflicts and differences of opinion are the sort of things that arise in any situation where people interact closely, said Ritchey, who has represented Caritas for 10 years. "Every organization has a chief executive officer, and I don't think Terry is any different than that," he said. "People are always going to disagree. I don't think there's anything terrible going on out there. If I did, I wouldn't represent them."

Caritas' success is evident. In little more than a decade, the organization has quietly blossomed into one of the wealthiest organizations in the nation that promotes devotion to the Virgin Mary. A source close to the community said Caritas is probably one of the top five Marian centers in the world. Supported mainly by Roman Catholics throughout the United States, Caritas is nestled in a valley in Sterrett, a small, Shelby County town about 20 miles south of Birmingham on Shelby County 43.

The organization distributes information about Medjugorje by selling books and tapes, sponsoring pilgrimages to Medjugorje and printing a regular newsletter that reaches about 220,000 families, according to information reported on Caritas' annual tax form. In 1999, Caritas organized 11 trips to Medjugorje for 221 pilgrims, according to the IRS form.

Although the church has not authenticated the visions, the Vatican permits religious pilgrimages to Medjugorje. In a 1999 statement issued by David Foley, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham, to explain the diocesan position on Caritas, Foley wrote, "Since the visions of Medjugorje are still under investigation relative to their authenticity by the Holy See, I should not give any sign of approval nor associate with events connected with these visions."

The connection between Caritas and Medjugorje was cemented about a year after Colafrancesco created Caritas, in 1988, when visionary Marija Pavlovic Lunetti came to Birmingham to donate a kidney to her brother, Andrija, at UAB Hospital. While in Alabama, Lunetti stayed in Colafrancesco's Bear Creek Road home in Sterrett, where she said she had a vision in one of the bedrooms. According to one report, Lunetti had visions of Mary at the hospital while recovering from the operation.

Once word got out that Lunetti was in the area, pilgrims flocked from all across the country to Sterrett, jamming the Shelby County roads. Thousands of people were at Caritas on Thanksgiving Day when Lunetti claimed to see Mary in the 90-acre field next to Colafrancesco's home.

In 1999, Lunetti returned to Caritas for a week of worship. At the time, Caritas members estimated the event drew 20,000 to 30,000 pilgrims. As one of the first Medjugorje-promoting groups formed in the United States, Caritas helped link Medjugorje and the United States, said Michael Murphy, an anthropology professor at the University of Alabama who specializes in apparitions.

"Caritas was instrumental in providing the infrastructure for pilgrimages to Medjugorje from the U.S.," he said.

Although there is no umbrella organization that oversees such groups, Caritas is well known among other organizations that share the same purpose. "All over the world, I think people know Caritas," said Charlie Toye, director of the Send Your Spirit Medjugorje Center in Reading, Mass. "Certainly anyone who's involved in Medjugorje would know Caritas. They're well respected."

But former residents believe Colafrancesco has succeeded in duping a lot of well-intentioned Catholics. "There's no connection between Caritas and Medjugorje," said Mike O'Neill, 62, an Ohio native who lived at Caritas from 1991 to 1999. "That's not happening. This guy is using Medjugorje to make money."

Flynn, who now lives in Michigan with his wife and seven children, provided bank statements that show he wrote more than $45,000 in checks to Colafrancesco over the course of several years.

Flynn and Littiken said they and several other residents would occasionally receive checks written out to them from Caritas of Birmingham, which they would deposit in their checking accounts. Soon after the money was deposited, they said, they would be told by a high-ranking resident of Caritas to write a check, usually the same amount they had deposited, to Colafrancesco.

"The first couple times we did that we were told it was for the property tax that had to be paid on the land," said Flynn, 41. "(We were told that) since Caritas used all of the land it was only right, so that Terry was not paying the property taxes out of his pocket."

Eventually, Flynn said, no reason was given for why the checks to Colafrancesco were needed. They also were told the practice was legal, he said. Flynn also said he and other residents were each given a check to deposit several days before New Year's Eve 1999, when pre-millennium fears were at a peak. They were instructed to cash the checks and bring the money to one of the high-ranking members of Caritas, he said.

They were told they had to do this because Caritas needed to withdraw its money from the bank in case the economy collapsed at midnight, Flynn said. His bank statement from January 2000 shows that on Dec. 28 he deposited a $10,000 check from Caritas and then cashed a check in the same amount on Dec. 31. After cashing the check, Flynn said he brought the cash back to Caritas. Ritchey said he couldn't comment on the statements made by Flynn regarding the checks.

Caritas has a board of directors, but only Colafrancesco and Birmingham resident Sam Gagliano sit on the board. Gagliano declined to be quoted for this article.

Board decisions made by fewer than three people wouldn't meet the standards for nonprofit corporations laid out by the Philanthropic Advisory Service, a national charity watchdog, said Bennett Weiner, a vice president at the Philanthropy Advisory Service, based in Arlington, Va.

Bigger charities should have bigger boards "to ensure that the charity is carried out properly. It's common sense." Of Caritas, Weiner said, "I'd certainly hope they'd expand their board." The board is looking for a third member, Ritchey said.

Former residents aren't the only people expressing concern about Caritas. The Franciscan priests who live in Medjugorje and minister to religious pilgrims also have voiced concerns about Caritas. In an August letter, Rev. Kraljevic Svetozar wrote, "Here in Medjugorje, in the name of the priests who are working in the parish with pilgrims who are coming from all over the world, I express my deep concern for the organization called Caritas from Birmingham, Alabama.

"It appears that the organization does not follow good practice of Church discipline as well as the discipline of its members in regard to their ways in which they are organized within. We are afraid that there might be elements of a lack of respect for family relationships, mutual respect, respect for the church authority, respect for the families where the members came from, respect for property of family members who are there now and those who were there and left the community."

The letter was a general response to complaints he had heard about Caritas, Svetozar said.

Svetozar's letter wasn't the first written by a Medjugorje priest to express concerns about Caritas. The young organization already was a matter of concern for the priests of Medjugorje by 1990, when Rev. Leonard Orec, a pastor in Medjugorje, wrote a letter to Raymond Boland, the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham at the time.

In the letter, Orec told Boland that Colafrancesco and a friend, Cyril Auboyneau, a resident of France who has served as a translator for the visionaries, had been presenting themselves as representatives of Medjugorje in the Birmingham diocese.

Orec wrote, "Regarding this I wish to inform you that we have nothing to do with them and we have notified them to cease their activities. If either is still doing this he is acting on his own."

Also concerned about Caritas are parents and siblings of some of the young adults who continue to live there.

Ed and Patsy Locks of Jacksonville, Fla., have three children who live at Caritas, Greg, 32, Jenny, 25, and Erin, 22. All of them, Patsy Locks said, no longer return phone calls and refuse to see her or her husband.

Gail McCausland of Memphis said that whenever she drove to Caritas to visit her two children, one of whom has since left Caritas, they would hardly notice she was there. "They'd be working, and they'd be very oblivious to us," she said. "It was so hard to deal with because we were all so close. They were different people." Since leaving the community, McCausland's 27-year-old son, Toby O'Byrnes, has been through a counseling program at the Wellspring Retreat & Resource Center in Albany, Ohio, the nation's only residential treatment facility for recovering cult victims. But her 29-year-old daughter, Shannon O'Byrnes, still lives at Caritas and does not return phone calls, McCausland said. Toby O'Byrnes declined to be quoted.

Although David Foley, bishop at the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham, did not return phone calls seeking comment on Caritas, he met with relatives of residents and former residents in October.

In the past, the diocese has distanced itself from Caritas. In former Bishop Raymond Boland's 1991 statement on Caritas, which the diocese still uses, the diocesan position is outlined: "Caritas has absolutely no connection with the Diocese of Birmingham. There are no canonical links."

In a letter that Ed Locks received in January, James Frances Stafford, a Catholic cardinal based in Rome, expressed concern for the families who have children at Caritas. He also said Caritas has no chance of being recognized as a lay organization in the Roman Catholic church.

"The apparitions to the visionaries of Medjugorje have not received any official recognition from the Catholic Church," Stafford wrote. "They are still under study. This reality doesn't lessen the terrible anguish Patsy and you feel for your three children. It does point up the folly of giving so much of their precious lives to an as yet unapproved phenomenon and with a group that has not sought the Church's formal recognition."

Caritas' main compound is located up a short road named Our Lady Queen of Peace Drive. Across the street, cows graze on the field where, in 1988, Lunetti said she had a vision near a towering pine tree that still stands, protected by an iron fence.

Several feet away, a statue of the Virgin Mary sits atop a pile of reddish stones, reminiscent of the rocky terrain of Medjugorje. Today, residents of Caritas use the field for group prayer, and Medjugorje believers occasionally stop by and leave flowers at the altar.

From the field, Colafrancesco's home is visible through the trees. Although Caritas occupies about 168 acres, 144 of those acres, valued at more than $500,000, are in Colafrancesco's name, according to Shelby County records. In 1998, Colafrancesco told The Associated Press that all of the land is for Caritas and he just had not deeded it over yet. In the article he said, "If I give it over to the nonprofit, the federal government could come in in five years ... and try to change the way we operate."

Several buildings are located on the main compound, the most impressive of which is the $2 million Tabernacle of Our Lady's Messages, a stone and wooden building containing a worship area, statues, offices and a printing press. Next to the Tabernacle sits the gift shop. In the distance, the five or six trailers the families and single adults who live at Caritas call home dot the landscape.

Much of the donations that pour into Caritas, former residents said, were used to purchase expensive equipment for the property. A lot of the heavy equipment has been purchased in the past couple of years, neighbors and former residents said. The inventory, according to neighbors and people who once lived at Caritas, includes a sawmill, a tractor-trailer, a Caterpillar loader and horse trailers.

Caritas also owns land in Medjugorje, and in the past few years built a mission house on the property. The group uses the home during trips to Medjugorje, sources said.

At Caritas, there are no televisions or newspapers. The workday begins before sunrise. Residents gather in the field to pray the rosary together at 5 a.m. The day is interspersed with several more prayer breaks, the last one usually ending between 8 and 9 p.m., according to former residents. An average night's sleep, they said, is about six hours.

"We were in a continuous state of people being overloaded with too much work," Flynn said. "With the lack of sleep, it would take on a tone of insanity. Morale was low." During the day, men usually worked on various building projects, while women were in charge of cooking and office work.

In a letter written to a friend several months after he left Caritas, Littiken described the work conditions at Caritas. "People literally worked till they dropped. Even the older kids were expected to work late into the night. One time Adam, my son, fell off a second-story wall landing on the ground beneath him. It was a miracle he wasn't hurt bad, he had landed on the hard clay and right beside him were two pieces of rebar sticking straight up out of the concrete footings."

According to IRS records, Caritas spent $41,678 to compensate officers and directors in 1999, and an additional $186,978 on other salaries and wages. Colafrancesco earned $32,257 in 1999 for his work as president of Caritas, according to the records.

The structure at Caritas is similar to that of a religious order, said Ritchey, the Caritas lawyer, and as such there are internal expectations. Participation in the whole mission is like participation in a religious community, he said, in that there's some sacrifice associated with it.

"I have every confidence in the world that they're doing the right thing and making the right decisions," Ritchey said. "I think it's a positive mission, and I think they're good people."

 


For God to live in your hearts, you must love.