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CatholicVote and Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit against the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday, alleging that the agencies have failed to respond to a request for records related to the FBI’s investigation of Catholics.
The conservative nonprofits are seeking information regarding a memo from the bureau’s Richmond, Va., field office that warned against “radical traditionalist Catholic ideology,” among other records.
CatholicVote says it filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act on March 8, for any communications from high-level FBI officials and DOJ officials in the Office of the Attorney General dating back to March 1, 2022 that mention several key words, including “Catholics,” “Latin Mass,” “Radical-Traditionalist Catholics,” “Church Militant,” “Catholic League,” “Southern Poverty Law Center,” “Pope Francis,” “Vatican II,” and “Rosary.” The requests also asked for communications related to the removal of the memo from FBI systems, the FBI’s review of the basis for the memo, and any official actions taken by the bureau pursuant to the memo.
While FOIA requires agencies to respond to requests in 20 business days, or 30 business days under “unusual circumstances,” the group says more than a month has passed and neither agency has produced the requested records or offered any indication of whether they plan to respond to the requests.
The lawsuit asks a judge to require the two agencies to produce the relevant records, as well as to allow the plaintiffs to recoup attorneys’ fees and other litigation costs.
“Our weaponized and corrupt government agencies have demonstrated a pattern of contempt for justice and the rule of law by prioritizing partisan ideology and agendas over the protection of the American people — in particular those with whom they disagree politically,” CatholicVote President Brian Burch said in a statement. “We are demanding transparency from our government and are determined to uncover just how high up the anti-Catholic bigotry goes.”
The FBI’s Richmond field office released an internal memo in January warning against “radical traditionalist Catholic ideology,” and claiming it “almost certainly presents new mitigation opportunities.” The FBI later retracted the memo, which was made public by a whistleblower, saying it failed to meet the bureau’s standards.
Kyle Seraphin, who was a special agent at the bureau for six years before he was indefinitely suspended without pay in June 2022, published the document, “Interest of Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists in Radical Traditionalist Catholic Ideology Almost Certainly Presents New Mitigation Opportunities,” on UncoverDC.com.
“In making this assessment, FBI Richmond relied on the key assumption that [racially or ethnically motivated extremists] will continue to find [radical-traditionalist Catholic or RTC] ideology attractive and will continue to attempt to connect with RTC adherents, both virtually via social media and in-person at places of worship,” the document from January 23 states.
It adds that “RTCs are typically categorized by the rejection of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) as a valid church council; disdain for most of the popes elected since Vatican II, particularly Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II; and frequent adherence to anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, and white supremacist ideology. 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, without the more extremist ideological beliefs and violent rhetoric.”
The report relied upon information from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal-advocacy organization that has come under fire for including conservative nonprofits like the Alliance Defending Freedom and the American College of Pediatricians on its list of “hate groups” alongside groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Nation of Islam.
The FBI condemned the leaked memo in February, telling National Review in a statement: “While our standard practice is to not comment on specific intelligence products, this particular field office product – disseminated only within the FBI – regarding racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism does not meet the exacting standards of the FBI. Upon learning of the document, FBI Headquarters quickly began taking action to remove the document from FBI systems and conduct a review of the basis for the document. ”
The statement adds: “The FBI is committed to sound analytic tradecraft and to investigating and preventing acts of violence and other crimes while upholding the constitutional rights of all Americans and will never conduct investigative activities or open an investigation based solely on First Amendment protected activity.”
This month, Representative Jim Jordan (R., Ohio) revealed that the FBI recruited at least one “undercover employee” to “develop sources among the clergy and church leadership” as part of its effort to identify extremists in the Catholic Church.
We now know the FBI, relying on information derived from at least one undercover employee, sought to use local religious organizations as “new avenues for tripwire and source development.”
— Rep. Jim Jordan (@Jim_Jordan) April 10, 2023
Jordan, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, issued a subpoena to FBI director Christopher Wray, demanding he testify and turn over more information to Congress about the bureau’s intelligence-gathering efforts targeting Catholic Americans.
“Americans attend church to worship and congregate for their spiritual and personal betterment,” Jordan wrote in a letter to Wray on April 10. “They must be free to exercise their fundamental First Amendment rights without worrying that the FBI may have planted so-called ‘tripwire’ sources or other informants in their houses of worship.”
The House weaponization committee, which Jordan also oversees, called on the FBI to turn over information related to its investigation of Catholics after the memo was leaked. Jordan wrote earlier this month that the FBI had not been sufficiently responsive to demands for more information.
FBI documents obtained by the committee reveal the bureau “sought to enlist Catholic houses of worship as potential sources to monitor and report on their parishioners,” according to the letter.