Mediation may end dispute at Caritas of Birmingham

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By Daniel Jackson, Birmingham Post-Herald

Patrick J. Flynn said the founder of a Shelby County religious compound no longer has any control over him, but other people should be warned.

Last week Flynn was sitting 3 feet away from Terry Colafrancesco, founder of the Caritas Community, during depositions in a lawsuit filed by some of his former followers.

Colafrancesco had his deposition and bank records sealed in the lawsuit.

Flynn, one of the original 12 inhabitants of the Caritas Community, questioned Shelby County Circuit Judge J. Michael Joiner's confidentiality order, which bars discussion of the details in the three-year-old suit.

A group of former Caritas residents and parents of residents have accused Colafrancesco of operating a cult that preys on devout Catholics and drains them of their assets. Parties in the case will begin court-ordered mediation on March 30.

"If he's this holy, righteous guy, why would he want to seal his deposition? ... " Flynn said. "If you light a lamp, do you put it under a bushel basket or do you hang it on a lamp stand? If anything, it sends the message that something is wrong here."

Unlike a civil trial, the mediation proceedings are closed to the public.

Flynn, who left Caritas in April 2000 after nine years in the group, said Colafrancesco's deposition, which was taken last week in two days of questioning, should not be protected from public scrutiny.

Telephone calls to Colafrancesco on Friday and Monday were not returned, and his attorney Daniel Burnick said he would not comment on the confidentiality order or anything related to the litigation. Colafrancesco has declined numerous requests for interviews in the past.

Two telephone calls to Joiner's office Monday were not returned.

The Caritas community, located on 145 acres off Shelby County 43 in Sterrett, has been home to dozens and a pilgrimage site for thousands since a woman from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Marija Pavlovic Lunetti, claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary in Colafrancesco's cow pasture in 1988. A group of children, including Lunetti, began reporting the visions of Mary near their homes in Medjugorje in 1981, but the Catholic Church has not recognized the apparitions.

About 30 longtime residents, including Flynn, left Caritas in 1999 and 2000, complaining of grueling work, inadequate schooling for children, money laundering, and misuse of donations and brainwashing by Colafrancesco.

Suzette Malveaux, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law, said many cases are settled confidentially without a public airing of the complaints, and some argue that the public has an interest in some of those cases, she said. If Colafranceso settles with the plaintiffs in mediation, the public may never learn all of the details in the complaints against him, she said.

"Some are angry at how secretive these procedures are," Malveaux said. "They're frustrated because we don't have a public track record in cases where the defendant could be hurting people in a large way."

Flynn, whose patron apostle as one of the original 12 residents was the doubting St. Thomas, said he is not optimistic that Colafrancesco will settle in mediation. If the talks break down, the case will go to court, he said.

Colafrancesco "truly believes that he has an exalted mission here on Earth that is so exclusive even beyond the knowledge of the clergy," Flynn said. "He feels he's having to succumb to a worldly process, and he is transcendent above all that. I would like to put this behind me."

 

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