By Jay Reeves, Montgomery Advertiser
Sterrett -- A multimillion-dollar organization that promotes visions of the Virgin Mary is fighting charges of being a destructive cult as religious pilgrims from across the nation arrive at its Alabama compound seeking spiritual renewal.
Five former residents of Caritas of Birmingham have filed suit in state court seeking an unspecified amount of money from the group and its founder, Terry Colafrancesco.
The suit claims Colafrancesco lures people into Caritas with promises of spiritual enrichment and then drains them of money. Families are made to live in nasty trailers at the group's compound, and Colafrancesco controls their lives almost totally, the suit claims.
The plaintiffs include a one-time lieutenant to Colafrancesco and five parents who sued on behalf of their children, who still live at the mission located about 30 minutes south of Birmingham on about 150 acres of wooded land.
The suit claims Caritas has assets of about $5.9 million gained both through legitimate donations, pressure tactics and shady business deals. Colafrancesco "said he was knighted by Mary the mother of Jesus," according to the suit.
"It's just bitterness," Colafrancesco said Tuesday, declining to respond to specific allegations.
About 50 people, mostly Roman Catholics, live at Caritas, which includes a huge stone office building that resembles a church. The suit was filed Friday, just days before the arrival at Caritas of Marija Pavlovic Lunetti, who has reported having visions of Christ's mother for about two decades.
Lunetti was one of six young people who claimed Mary appeared to them in 1981 in the town of Medjugorje, located in the country now called Bosnia-Herzegovina. The messages continued and the group developed a worldwide following.
Thousands of people came to a rolling pasture when Lunetti first visited Alabama in 1981 to donate a kidney to her ailing brother during a transplant operation in Birmingham.
Only a small organization at the time, Caritas has since become one of the largest organizations dedicated to spreading the messages of Medjugorje.
Lunetti, who now lives in Italy, was last at Caritas in 1999, when several thousand people a day gathered to hear her report messages she said she received from Mary in apparitions.
Few of the people who traveled to Caritas to see Lunetti this time knew of the lawsuit. But sisters Alice Rosemann and Diana Brush said having the chance to hear Lunetti speak made the 12-hour drive from their homes in Missouri worthwhile. The sisters and 24 other relatives piled into five cars for the trip.
Rosemann, of Bunker, Mo., said she wanted to cry after seeing Lunetti for the first time. "I was touched. It's just something about her," she said.
The lawsuit claims Colafrancesco persuaded Lunetti to come to Alabama the first time and continues bringing her to the state "to attract individuals to live at Caritas and work for him full time to raise money and do other things."
The organization reported $3.8 million in assets and $1.8 million in income in 1999, according to Internal Revenue Service forms.
Colafrancesco said the lawsuit was timed to coincide with Lunetti's visit. "They're trying to wreck this," he said.
Plaintiffs include Pat Flynn, who once was a top aide to Colafrancesco and served as a spokesman for Caritas. Flynn, his wife and their children left Caritas last year and now live in Michigan.
The Vatican has not taken a position on whether the visions of Medjugorje are real.
The California-based Kronzer Foundation, which claims the Medjugorje visions are fake, filed suit last year accusing Caritas of brainwashing and mismanagement. The suit, which also named other groups, was dismissed.
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