Columbiana, Ala. -- A Roman Catholic bishop privately defended an Alabama religious community against claims it was a cult four years before ex-residents filed suit accusing the group of mind control and fraud.
In a letter, Bishop David E. Foley described Caritas of Birmingham as a gathering of "devout Catholics, sharing a common interest in the spiritual life."
"... I have found nothing that would lead me to believe that this group is in any way operating a cult," wrote Foley, who has long sought to publicly distance the church from Caritas.
Foley's private assessment - which critics call ill-informed and flawed - came after a meeting with the founder of Caritas. It was recently disclosed in court files in a lawsuit accusing Caritas of luring in followers and using lies and deception to take millions from unsuspecting backers.
Former residents contend Foley should have done more to find out what was going on at Caritas, located in rural Shelby County.
"I am sorely disappointed in (Foley) as a leader of the church. A shepherd should not ignore the sheep, especially those who have been injured and have asked for help," Laura Flynn, a former member involved in the lawsuit against Caritas, said Tuesday.
Foley declined comment on Caritas or his assessment of the organization, documented in a 1997 letter, said spokesman Frank Savage.
One-time landscaper Terry Colafrancesco founded Caritas after a woman from Medjugorje, a town in Bosnia, visited Alabama in 1981 and claimed to have visions of Christ's mother in a field.
From that beginning, Caritas bought acreage and constructed a stone office building resembling a church. Dozens of adults and children lived there at the time, and pilgrims visited the site from across the nation.
The tax-exempt organization, which conducts tours to Medjugorje, listed $2 million in income and $4.3 million in assets in 2002.
Filed in 2001 after disenchanted members left Caritas, the lawsuit includes claims from five former residents and three families whose children lived at the sprawling compound in rural Shelby County.
Caritas and Colafrancesco used mind-control techniques including sleep deprivation and isolation to keep people at the center, the suit contends, and they defrauded believers into giving money.
In response, Caritas and Colafrancesco have accused opponents of conspiring to ruin their ministry, dedicated to promoting the visions of Medjugorje.
In addition to a counterclaim against the people who filed the original suit, Caritas sued an attorney involved in the case and California businessman Phillip J. Kronzer, whose foundation contends the Medjugorje visions are a fraud.
Dan Burnick, an attorney representing Caritas and Colafrancesco, declined comment. A lawyer for former residents also declined comment.
Officially, the Birmingham diocese distances itself from Caritas and refuses to allow mass or communion at the compound. Publicly, the bishop's office still stands by a 1991 statement that said there is "absolutely no connection" between the diocese and Caritas.
But court records show Foley became involved at least briefly with the group after an attorney wrote him in 1997 about Edward and Patricia Locks, whose then-19-year-old daughter lived at Caritas.
In his response, Foley wrote that he had met with Colafrancesco to go over the concerns of the Locks and Gail McCausland, another parent who was worried about the welfare of her children at Caritas.
Based on an investigation that included contacting two priests who were familiar with Caritas, Foley said it appeared people were free to come and go from the compound, even though Colafrancesco sometimes sought commitments of as long as four years from residents.
"From my interview with Mr. Terry Colafrancesco, I certainly could not pick up anything that would indicate that this was a `cult-like' community," Foley wrote to Robert Hutton, the Locks' lawyer.
Flynn said Foley has heard from many people with concerns about Caritas. "Yet he chooses to ignore the letters and things we send to him, even when we request a response," she said.
The bishop met with former Caritas residents and relatives of members in 2000 to hear their concerns but did nothing afterward, Flynn said.
Savage, the diocese spokesman, reiterated the church's position that Caritas is independent and not subject to church control.