Mediation ordered in Caritas lawsuit

Leader must answer two days of questions

Birmingham News/December 28, 2004
By Nancy Wilstach

A Shelby County judge is trying to put a 3-year-old lawsuit that alleges brainwashing by a religious group on a faster track by ordering the principals to submit to mediation.

Also, Caritas of Birmingham leader Terry Colafrancesco must answer two days of questions from lawyers representing former Caritas residents who claim Colafrancesco brainwashed them.

Shelby County Circuit Judge J. Michael Joiner ordered that Colafrancesco's lawyer, Daniel Burnick, make the religious community's leader available for 14 hours of questioning over two days before March 10.

The lawsuit, brought by former residents and parents of residents, accuses Caritas of fraud, misrepresentation, undue influence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and false imprisonment. It claims Colafrancesco entices devout Catholics to Caritas and then drains their assets.

The community began after a woman from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Marija Pavlovic Lunetti, traveled to Sterrett in 1988 and reported visitations from the Virgin Mary in Colafrancesco's pasture similar to those she reported experiencing for two decades in her Eastern European home. She has returned periodically over the last 17 years and reported more visions. Her last visit, in May, drew thousands of people from across the country.

Colafrancesco became spiritual leader of the Caritas Community, and donations started to flow to the community from around the world.

Followers began giving up their worldly lives to move into Caritas and support the ministry. They operate a school, a sawmill, a gift shop and a farm in connection with the Tabernacle of Our Lady's Messages, a shrine Colafrancesco's followers built on Shelby County 43 in Sterrett.

Neither the visions nor the tabernacle are recognized by the Birmingham Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church.

Angelina Richardson is representing plaintiffs Stephen J. Littiken, Anna M. Littiken, Edward L. Locks, Patricia A. Locks, Jacqueline O'Neill, Toby R. O'Byrnes, Patrick J. Flynn, Laura A. Flynn, Gail McCausland and the estate of Mike O'Neill in the lawsuit against Caritas.

Richardson asked for a week to question Colafrancesco, but Joiner limited her to two days. However, he told her he would consider extending the time if the situation appeared to warrant it.

Joiner also ordered mediation in the case by April 15. Mediation is not open to the press or public.

The judge ordered that all the plaintiffs arrange to be present for the mediation sessions. They are scattered around the country, and Richardson said travel may be a hardship for some. Joiner said he would consider, on individual bases, permitting a person to represent his or her spouse, providing the person attending had power of attorney.

The plaintiffs have subpoenaed bank records of individual Caritas members as well as the organization's financial records. The plaintiffs contend the records will reveal evidence of money-laundering.

Joiner sealed those records at Burnick's request.

Besides Caritas of Birmingham, defendants in the lawsuit are the Caritas Community and Colafrancesco.

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