Judge weighs contempt filing in Caritas suit

Birmingham News/February 24, 2004
By Nancy Wilstach

A contempt motion and the specter of a fatal airplane crash are the latest developments in a lawsuit against a Shelby County religious community and its founder by former residents and parents of current residents.

The community of Caritas grew out of purported visions of the Virgin Mary in a former cow pasture near Sterrett. The community is an outgrowth of Caritas of Birmingham, established in the 1980s.

Besides Caritas of Birmingham, defendants in the three-year-old suit are the Caritas Community and founder Terry Colafrancesco.

The community developed after Marija Pavlovic Lunetti traveled to Sterrett from Bosnia-Herzegovina and reported visitations from the Virgin Mary in Colafrancesco's pasture similar to those she claimed to have experienced for two decades in her Eastern European home.

As a result, Colafrancesco became spiritual leader of the Caritas Community. Followers began giving up their worldly lives to move into Caritas and support the ministry.

The lawsuit followed the eventual disillusionment of some of those followers. As the case slowly moves toward either settlement or jury trial, it also has changed shape and volume.

Circuit Judge J. Michael Joiner is considering a motion from Colafrancesco and Caritas to cite Phillip Kronzer of the California-based Kronzer Foundation for Religious Research with contempt.

The motion by Caritas lawyer Daniel J. Burnick accuses Kronzer of saying during a guest appearance on a radio program that the plaintiffs have "overwhelming evidence of money laundering," with Colafrancesco "facing potential charges of charity fraud."

According to Burnick's motion, Kronzer also said "Colafrancesco could have a cash flow of $30 million."

The motion asserts that those statements violated Joiner's December order sealing some items obtained in the discovery process, particularly checks on bank accounts other than those of Colafrancesco and Caritas. Plaintiffs' lawyers said they wanted checks and bank records to document money laundering.

Burnick declined to comment on pending litigation. Efforts to reach Colafrancesco for comment were unsuccessful.

Those suing Caritas originally were 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 and Gail McCausland.

The amended complaint expanded O'Neill's claim. Originally, she sued as a former resident and as the adult relative of a minor resident of Caritas. Her standing has been amended to include "her capacity as personal representative of the estate of Mike O'Neill."

O'Neill's husband, a former Caritas resident and former FBI agent, was investigating Caritas when he died piloting an air cargo plane that crashed Dec. 1, 2001, near the Bessemer Airport.

According to Jacqueline O'Neill's deposition, her daughter had to have counseling after leaving Caritas because she was "having a lot of guilt. She felt like she was responsible for her dad's death. She felt like she betrayed her father. She said every day since her dad left the community, she was told how bad her father was, how he was this terrible person, he was Caritas' number one enemy."

The lawsuit 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. No trial date has been set.

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