A multimillion dollar religious mission in rural Shelby County is under fire from critics and former residents who accuse the leader of brainwashing and financial mismanagement.
Longtime members have left Caritas of Birmingham after becoming disenchanted with the operation, and the organization is named in a federal lawsuit over its work to promote visions of the Virgin Mary.
The disputes center around Terry Colafrancesco, the founder and leader of Caritas, which has a publishing house and operates a travel service to Europe.
Complaints about the organization were revealed Monday in a story by the Birmingham Post-Herald, which said Colafrancesco did not respond to repeated interview requests.
An attorney who has done legal work for Caritas said Colafrancesco and his followers are good people with a "positive mission."
"Terry has always had the philosophy that he doesn't respond to people who say bad things about him," said lawyer Joseph Ritchey.
Ex-residents including one-time Colafrancesco lieutenant Pat Flynn accuse Colafrancesco of personally profiting from their donations and overworking both adults and children who live at the site.
"We were in a continuous state of people being overloaded with too much work," said Flynn, who left last year with his family and now lives in Michigan. "With the lack of sleep it would take on a tone of insanity. Morale was low."
Others accuse Caritas of being a cult that distances its members from their relatives. The mission has no TV or radios, and members are not allowed to read newspapers or magazines.
Three adult children of Ed and Patsy Locks of Jacksonville, Fla., live at Caritas, and the couple says none of them will see them or return phone calls anymore.
Gail McCausland of Memphis, Tenn., said her two children who lived at Caritas would hardly acknowledge her presence when she visited.
"They'd be working and they'd be very oblivious to us," said McCausland, whose son has left Caritas, where her 29-year-old daughter remains. "It was so hard to deal with because we were all so close. They were different people."
A lawsuit filed in California accuses Colafrancesco, the president of Caritas, of brainwashing people. The suit was filed against Caritas and other organizations by Phillip Kronzer.
Kronzer and his ex-wife once believed that children in the Eastern European town of Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, had had miraculous visions of Jesus' mother. Caritas' stated goal is to promote those visions and lead pilgrimages to Medjogorje.
But Kronzer now alleges the visions were a fraud, and he has filed two suits attempting to expose the entire movement as a hoax.
Kronzer's suit accused Colafrancesco of controlling the lives of Caritas residents, who are even told when they may have sex.
Most residents live in mobile homes on the Caritas property, located southeast of Birmingham. Colafrancesco and his family live in a $118,400 house across the road.
"Adherents are kept under primitive conditions in communal trailers or cabins without adequate heating, running water or sanitation. Children often sleep on the floor because of lack of space," the suit claims.
Caritas, a nonprofit organization that is required to file financial statements with the Internal Revenue Service, reported $3.4 million in assets and $1.5 million in income in 1997.
Flynn, who once ran a Caritas printing operation that distributes materials worldwide, remains a believer in the visions of Mary. He left Caritas because he was unhappy but wants nothing to do with Kronzer's suit.
"That man wants to destroy Medjugorje," said Flynn.
Franciscan priests who live in Medjugorje also have expressed deep reservations about Caritas of Birmingham.
"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," wrote the Rev. Kraljevic Svetozar in an August letter, according to the Post-Herald.