Sterrett, Ala. -- A multimillion dollar organization that promotes visions of the Virgin Mary is fighting charges of being a destructive cult as religious pilgrims from across the nation arrive at its Alabama compound seeking spiritual renewal.
Five former residents of Caritas of Birmingham have filed suit in state court seeking an unspecified amount of money from the group and its founder, Terry Colafrancesco.
The suit claims Colafrancesco lures people into Caritas with promises of spiritual enrichment and then drains them of money. Families are made to live in nasty trailers at the group's compound, and Colafrancesco controls their lives almost totally, the suit claims.
The plaintiffs include a one-time lieutenant to Colafrancesco and five parents who sued on behalf of their children, who still live at the mission located about 30 minutes south of Birmingham.
The suit claims Caritas has assets of about $5.9 million. Colafrancesco "said he was knighted by Mary the mother of Jesus," the suit says.
"It's just bitterness," Colafrancesco said Tuesday.
About 50 people, mostly Roman Catholics, live at Caritas. The suit was filed Friday, just days before the arrival at Caritas of Marija Pavlovic Lunetti, who has reported having visions of Christ's mother for about two decades.
Lunetti was one of six young people who claimed Mary appeared to them in 1981 in the town of Medjugorje, located in the country now called Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Thousands came to a rolling pasture when Lunetti first visited Alabama in 1988 to donate a kidney to her ailing brother during a transplant operation in Birmingham.
Caritas has since become one of the largest organizations dedicated to spreading the messages of.
Lunetti, who lives in Italy, was last at Caritas in 1999, when several thousand people a day gathered to hear messages she said she received from Mary in apparitions.
Plaintiffs include Pat Flynn, who once was a top aide to Colafrancesco. Flynn, his wife and their children left Caritas last year and now live in Michigan.