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House panel releases report on FBI's targeting of traditional Catholics

iStock/krblokhin
iStock/krblokhin

Catholic organizations are reacting to the findings of an investigation into the FBI’s targeting of traditional Catholics, described as “a wake up call to any and all Americans who care about basic civil liberties.”

The U.S. House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee and the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government released an interim staff report titled “The FBI’s Breach of Religious Freedom: The Weaponization of Law Enforcement Against Catholic Americans” on Monday. The publication of the report comes nearly a year after the publication of an internal memo previously circulated in the FBI’s Richmond Field Office identifying “radical-traditionalist Catholics” as a national security threat.

The document, distributed in January and published by former FBI Special Agent Kyle Seraphin in February, warned that “the increasingly observed interest of racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (RMVEs) in radical-traditionalist Catholic ideology almost certainly presents opportunities for threat mitigation through the exploration of new avenues for tripwire and source development.” 

The document defined “radical-traditionalist Catholics” as those who reject “the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) as a valid church council” and express “disdain for most of the popes elected since Vatican II, particularly Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II.” The memo also maintained that RTCs adhere to “anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, and white supremacist ideology.” 

As explained in the document, the Second Vatican Council that took place from 1962-1965 was “intended to help the church respond to global cultural changes in the aftermath of World War II and resulted in significant reforms to the liturgy, attitudes towards non-Christian religions, roles and responsibilities of the laity, views on religious freedom, etc.” 

The memo attempted to clarify that “radical-traditionalist Catholics compose a small minority of overall Roman Catholic adherents and are separate and distinct from ‘traditionalist Catholics’ who prefer the Traditional Latin Mass and pre-Vatican II teachings and traditions, but without the more extremist ideological beliefs and violent rhetoric.” 

While the FBI insisted that the document did not “meet the exacting standards of the FBI,” committed to investigating “the basis of the document” and vowed that it would “never conduct investigative activities or open an investigation based solely on First Amendment protected activity,” Monday’s report declared: “It is evident that the FBI violated the First Amendment.” 

Specifically, the report discovered based on whistleblower testimony that the FBI interviewed a priest and choir director of a church in Richmond: “The interviews appear to have occurred in November and December 2022—the same time the analysts started drafting the memorandum. This information, which the FBI has refused to disclose, confirms that the FBI directly communicated with Catholic clergy and staff about parishioners practicing their faith.”

Additionally, the report indicated that a total of four FBI field offices were involved in crafting the memo, despite FBI Director Christopher Wray’s testimony before Congress asserting that the effort to create the memo was limited to “a single field office.” While the Judiciary Committee had earlier confirmed that FBI Portland and FBI Los Angeles offices had assisted the Richmond field office with the document, the investigation reveals that the FBI’s Milwaukee field office was consulted on it as well.

The report traces FBI Richmond’s development of the memo back to September 2022, when the field office began to prioritize the strategic plan for the year to pursue racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists as a top priority and sought to “strengthen [liaison] relationships through outreach.”

The field office began investigating a single subject who identified himself as a “radical traditionalist Catholic Clerical Fascist” on social media as an opportunity to “conduct outreach with Catholic parishes in the Richmond area of responsibility.” The congressional investigation demonstrated that FBI Richmond had never used the term RTC before encountering the man’s social media and did not understand its meaning. 

Brian Burch, president of the advocacy organization CatholicVote, weighed in on the latest developments in the investigation into the origins of the FBI memo in a statement shared with The Christian Post. “The latest revelations only raise more questions about the illegitimate targeting of Catholics by the FBI,” he said. 

According to Burch, “Despite every effort to downplay the significance of this abuse of power, the FBI still owes Catholics and all concerned Americans answers as to who was behind the effort to spy on Catholics, how far and wide this effort went inside the FBI, whether it is ongoing and whether anyone has been held accountable.” The report includes information about the internal review the FBI conducted following the publication of the memo. 

“The FBI also found that the employees involved in drafting, reviewing, and approving the memorandum failed to adhere to FBI standards. The employees ‘lacked professional judgement’ and ‘lack[ed] ... training and awareness’ of Domestic Terrorism (DT) terminology, causing them to utilize amorphous and ill-defined terms such as ‘RTC’ and ‘far-right.’ Furthermore, the FBI’s internal review found that the Richmond Field Office lacked a formal review process.”

The law enforcement agency also acknowledged that those reviewing the document used “less scrutiny because it was an internal intelligence product.”

While the report noted that “the FBI’s internal review concluded that all employees involved in drafting, reviewing, and approving the memorandum ‘shall be admonished’ and ‘their respective supervisors will engage with [the] Human Resources Division to ensure deficiencies are addressed,” it raised concerns about the fact that the identities of those responsible for the memo remain unknown.

“The findings of the Select Subcommittee on Weaponization of the Federal Government are a wake up call to any and all Americans who care about basic civil liberties,” stated Catholic Association Fellow and radio host Ashley McGuire. “The notion that traditional Catholics pose some kind of national threat is so absurd it exceeds even Hollywood’s imagination. And yet the FBI, an agency designed to protect Americans and their rights, was spying on Catholics everywhere from their choir lofts to their rectories.” 

McGuire expressed gratitude for “the work of this committee to bring this serious breach of our religious freedom to light and hold those responsible accountable for their actions.”

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: ryan.foley@christianpost.com

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