Anatomy of an Ecclesiastical Smear Campaign

In this space last week was Part I of a promised two-part Ad Rem. Because of the matter treated below, I have lacked sufficient time to write the second part. It will come, Deo Volente, soon. Meanwhile, what appears below is the text of an urgent letter sent to Saint Benedict Center’s friends and benefactors.

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Pax Christi. You may recall the startling revelations that came out on February 8 of this year, when a heroic whistleblower named Kyle Seraphin published an internal memo from the Richmond, Virginia FBI Field Office. The memo concerned the threats posed by “Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists (RMVE)” and their overlap with “Radical-Traditionalist Catholics” (RTCs). In that memo, our little religious community, along with other groups of traditional Catholics, was named as an extremist threat to American society which must be monitored, and even infiltrated, by the federal government! Yes, you read that correctly, there was serious talk among some ideologues in the federal government of targeting and infiltrating our small community here in Richmond as a menace to society.

While the memo cited the leftist publications Salon and The Atlantic, the main source of misinformation for the unconstitutional and sloppy memo was the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an organization aptly described by our friend, C.J. Doyle, as, “a lucrative bunco scheme which monetizes left wing paranoia by inciting fear of conservative Christians.” The SPLC first attacked traditionalist Catholics, including the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, about sixteen years ago, and we have remained on their fraudulent “hate map” ever since.

There is good news to report, though. The enormous and rapid backlash against the memo earned the Richmond Field Office of the FBI instant notoriety, so much so that the higher-ups in the Bureau rescinded the document, stating that the memo does not meet the FBI’s “exacting standards.” Refreshingly, the memo’s reliance on the SPLC elicited a great deal of public ridicule and contempt. The SPLC is so thoroughly discredited now that only the utterly ill-informed or slavishly ideological put any stock in the veracity of its lunatic utterances.

This good news does not change the fact that, in the sixteen years since the SPLC defamed us, various parties have weaponized their ludicrous statements against us in the press, in the court of public opinion, and even in a court of law. First, the SPLC libels against us were used by those who attempted to stop a building project for God’s glory. But we prevailed in court more than a decade ago; here stands our sacred structure.

Now, in more recent years, the SPLC, and even the FBI have been leveraged against us in other venues, though, with a much higher cost.

Because we have been working hard at following due process and proper channels to resolve matters of dispute with the Diocese of Manchester, we have said very little about what is happening. At this point, a certain necessity compels us to speak about this ongoing matter.

The Decree of Precepts

As most of our friends and benefactors are well aware, on January 7 of 2019, the Diocese of Manchester issued a public decree regarding Saint Benedict Center, the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and our school. The draconian decree consists of fifteen “precepts and obligations” imposed upon us. It is accurate to say that these demands have placed Saint Benedict Center’s survival and all its good works in grave existential jeopardy. However, God is good, and we have been able to persevere.

The Diocese’s prohibition of the celebration of Mass or the Sacraments on our premises has been a heavy burden to all who revere the daily celebration of the Sacraments and the Church’s liturgy as among the most cherished things in life. Thankfully, for the last year and some months, we have been able to attend daily Mass in the traditional Roman rite at a personal parish in the next town over from us. And the families who formerly worshiped here have access to Holy Mass and all the sacraments in the traditional rite. This is a tremendous blessing.

But we are still fighting for our survival. I know the words, “existential threat,” are overused, but this situation remains just that for us.

The FBI Gets a Call

Some years after the fact, we discovered that in 2018, an official of the diocese — the very one who signed this decree against us — telephoned the FBI to “report possible involuntary servitude/human trafficking by Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Richmond, N.H.” (That’s a direct quote from documents the FBI sent us in response to a FOIA request.) In the call, this official claimed that Saint Benedict Center had threatened him, although he could not provide details about any threats, and he informed the FBI that the SPLC had identified Saint Benedict Center as a “hate group,” directing the FBI to various news sources for information.

As a result of this call, the FBI opened an “assessment” of Saint Benedict Center and these false claims. We were completely cooperative when two agents came to visit on August 18, 2018. Less than two months later, on October 11, 2018, the FBI closed its assessment concerning possible involuntary servitude/human trafficking by Slaves of Immaculate Heart of Mary, stating, “No further action warranted at this time.” The FBI found no evidence of any crimes because none had been committed. Had they found any, the FBI would have launched an investigation and would not have left us alone, as the senior FBI agent assigned to the file later assured me when I called him.

Yellow Journalism

The day after the decree of precepts was issued against us, January 8, 2019, the first of nine tendentiously written articles appeared in the New Hampshire Union Leader under Damien Fisher’s byline. This one was topped with the salacious and unwieldy headline, “NH-based ‘only Catholics go to heaven’ group sanctioned by Church; aspiring nun allegedly held against her will.” It was a very ugly hit piece of low journalistic standards.

As of this writing, Damien and his wife, Simcha Fisher, have collectively published eighteen such articles in a little over four years — from January, 2019 to March, 2023. Plenty of mention of us being a “hate group” and similar SPLC-style nonsense may be found in those articles. Most are largely reheats of what had been earlier alleged, with very little new information added.

Smearing Us at the CDF?

We also came to learn, much to our dismay, that in the spring of 2020, there was an official communique from the Diocese of Manchester to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) which mentions, “problems surrounding the community that involve the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation.” This was precisely when our hierarchical recourse to the Holy See was pending before the CDF. We know of this because the fact is documented in a confidential CDF document that the Bishop himself sent us.

If your mind is reeling and you are unable to keep score, let me tally it up for you: First, almost three months after the FBI had closed their assessment without discovering any wrongdoing on our part, someone in the Diocese of Manchester — the official who called the FBI in the first place — colluded with a biased and unprofessional journalist who put us very publicly in a false light without disclosing his own personal conflict of interest (his wife was working for the Diocese at the time). Second, over a year and a half after the FBI closed the assessment, someone in the Diocesan hierarchy reported something about “problems” involving the FBI to the CDF — as if this were somehow relevant to our canonical case, which it was not in the least. 

And Now a Lawsuit!

In February of 2021, the same diocesan official who issued the decree of precepts against us and called the FBI on us with a patently absurd claim, filed a lawsuit against some journalists who had given Saint Benedict Center favorable coverage — a drop in the bucket compared to the avalanche of bad press his actions against us triggered. The civil action was a defamation suit brought against the journalists.

In his civil complaint, this diocesan official notes that the SPLC has called Saint Benedict Center a “hate group.” Further, he alleges the false accusation of people being held here against their will (in the plural and in the present tense!), even though the FBI had closed their assessment well over two years prior to his suit being filed (October 11, 2018-February 5, 2021) because the charges lacked any merit.

An unbiased observer of the documented record (even one who lacks Faith but has a grasp of the Natural Law) would conclude that this is dishonest. There is a pattern here of reckless disregard of the truth. 

Because the matter of the litigation relates to articles and videos that were written and produced about Saint Benedict Center and the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, we have been dragged into the civil case as third parties. This case has seen a lot of activity of late, and as of this writing, I am soon to be deposed as a witness. So, as they say in the news, this is a “developing story.”

It is a story that I only have the time and the space to tell with the barest of details. There is much more to it. In real time, as I write, I am preparing for the legal deposition.

The Cost

Well before the decree was published against us, we had to procure the services of a professional canon lawyer. But, after the decree of precepts was issued, he had a lot more work to do. Because our case involved making a “hierarchical recourse” to the Holy See, we had to add the services of a Roman Curial Advocate to the team (in canonical matters, this is analogous to an elite civil lawyer qualified to represent cases before the Supreme Court). In addition, because of the current civil litigation we have been dragged into and other legal complications of this multi-faceted affair, we have had to employ civil attorneys as well.

The bottom line is that, from January 7, 2019 till the end of February of this year, we have spent around $150,000.00 in legal fees (canonical and civil), and associated professional fees thanks to this matter. And the bills are still coming in.

Normally, my letter to Friends and Benefactors treats of some issue of what Brother Francis liked to call, “Catholic erudition.” I would much rather write about some explicitly religious matter or some current event in light of perennial Catholic wisdom — in short, something that might bring eternal benefit to my readers. Unfortunately, given the obvious urgency of the situation, this appeal to our supporters is necessary. We have just learned that a thirty-year-old furnace in Saint Paul’s House is in need of replacement. This is our largest building (11,000 sq. feet). We have patched her up as much as we can because we cannot afford the approximately $35,000 that it will cost to replace.

I know that the economy is making everyone feel the pinch. Prices are going up all around. We experience it, too. And, because our donors experience it, donations to our apostolate have been down as our expenses rise.

If, in the midst of this perfect storm, you can send something extra for our canonical and legal defense, we would be — as we always are — most grateful. We need the help.

Despite what our enemies say about us, we here are all thoroughly Catholic. As Catholics, each of us trusts blindly in God’s Providence, not only to get us through this, but also to bring grace, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation to all who are involved in this trying situation. We have to “keep our eye on the ball,” as Brother Hugh used to say, and know that this is all about the glory of God and the salvation of souls. As I noted in this space in the summer of 2020, we both love and forgive the priest who has done this to us, as we are enjoined to do in the Gospel (Matt. 5:44, Luke 6:37). But because the Faith has been assailed and our rights trampled upon, we are compelled to continue fighting for the cause. We earnestly desire that what was said of Judas Machabeus and his brethren can be said of us: “…and they fought with cheerfulness the battles of Israel” (I Macc. 3:1).

May God bless and Mary keep you all during these very trying times.