Congress Releases Report on FBI’s Targeting of Traditionalist Catholics
The nation’s top law enforcement agency planted agents in Catholic parishes and interviewed at least one priest as part of an effort to spy on American Catholics, according to a new congressional report.
On Monday, the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government published a report covering “The FBI’s Breach of Religious Freedom: The Weaponization of Law Enforcement against Catholic Americans,” revealing new findings in the investigation into the memo leaked earlier this year from the FBI’s Richmond field office detailing plans to infiltrate and spy on Catholic parishes. The congressional report states, “The FBI’s Richmond memorandum is a startling reminder that Americans’ civil liberties and core Constitutional rights must be vigorously guarded against government overreach, including in this case from an overzealous law enforcement agency.”
Initially, FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress that the memo was the misguided product of a single field office and that his agency had not spied on Catholics. In August, Congress found evidence that the Richmond field office had in fact coordinated with other offices — namely, those of Portland and Los Angeles, although the new report noted that the Milwaukee field office was also a contributor — to craft the memo.
Monday’s report details that the FBI “relied on at least one undercover agent to develop its assessment” and “interviewed a priest and choir director affiliated with a Catholic church in Richmond, Virginia for the memorandum.” Furthermore, the Richmond field office’s “top lawyer” signed off on the memo, despite the fact that the “FBI’s own internal review identified errors at every step of the drafting, review, and approval of Richmond’s Catholic ‘intelligence product.’”
Arielle Del Turco, director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council, commented to The Washington Stand, “This is a seriously embarrassing report for all the FBI staff involved in creating the memorandum that targeted traditionalist Catholics.” She continued, “Federal authorities should always use the utmost caution to protect the First Amendment rights of all citizens before opening investigations or targeting religious groups for unwarranted scrutiny. … [T]hey need to have much more evidence before getting anywhere near the line of violating the First Amendment.”
Former congressman Tim Huelskamp, senior advisor to advocacy group CatholicVote told TWS, “Contrary to statements under oath by Director Wray and Attorney General Garland, this flagrantly anti-Catholic program by the FBI was widespread, fully supported by senior officials, authorized undercover agents to infiltrate Catholic parishes, attempted to influence elections, and may be ongoing.” He added, “Meanwhile, the Biden administration has stood idly by as Catholic churches have been attacked more than 200 times since May of 2022.”
Appearing on Tuesday night’s episode of “Washington Watch,” Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) addressed what the report’s findings say about Wray and his previous testimony to Congress. “He said, ‘Oh no, we don’t go to priests,
we don’t go to pastors. We don’t go to staff members and talk about people who come to church.’ That turns out to be totally false. In fact, they do do those things,” Hawley said. He also noted that Wray hasn’t fired anyone over the memo’s creation. “It is a grotesque abuse of the FBI’s authority. It is an abuse, I believe, of the First
Amendment,” the senator stated. “And to have the FBI director just shrug it off — first, try to deny it and then shrug it off — tells you a lot about the dangers to religious liberty in this country right now.”
First of all, the report notes that the “two experienced Intelligence Analysts who authored the memorandum knew
they were citing unreliable sources with a political bias.” The memo describes Catholics devoted to the Tridentine Mass (also known as the Traditional Latin Mass, the form of the Mass commonly celebrated prior to the Second Vatican Council) as “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists.” One of the chief resources FBI agents relied on in categorizing traditional Catholics as domestic terrorists was the far-left Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which classifies “radical traditionalist Catholics” as a hate group, alongside neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.
Tyler O’Neil, managing editor at The Daily Signal and author of “Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center,” told TWS, “The FBI has no business relying on a discredited smear factory like the Southern Poverty Law Center, especially when it comes to Roman Catholicism.”
He continued, “As I noted in my book … the SPLC has cited a direct quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church — the binding faith document for more than one billion Catholics worldwide — as evidence that the Ruth Institute is a ‘hate group.’ The SPLC used this pretext to justify putting the Ruth Institute on a ‘hate map’ with Ku Klux Klan chapters, the very same ‘hate map’ that a terrorist used to target Family Research Council for a mass shooting in 2012. … The House weaponization committee’s report sheds important new light on how the FBI used the SPLC to target Americans for their faith.”
One of the analysts who drafted the memo admitted in an interview that the “SPLC was known to have a political bias.” After the memo’s internal publication, other FBI agents described the agency’s “overreliance” on politically-biased resources as “problematic,” with one writing, “Is anyone really asking for a product like this? Apparently we are at the behest of the SPLC.” Other sources the FBI relied on included leftist opinion magazines Salon and The Atlantic, which once described the Catholic rosary as an “extremist symbol” and compared Catholic sacraments to AR-15s.
Both analysts who wrote the Richmond memo were veteran FBI employees, with one having served 20 years and the other 18 years. “It is concerning that these ‘senior’ analysts … could produce a memorandum with such grave civil liberties concerns,” read the report. “If these seasoned analysts do not understand the parameters of the First Amendment, it raises concerns about the FBI’s training of its analysts and whether other such unconstitutional intelligence products exist on FBI systems — a question that the FBI could not answer to the Committee.”
The report also detailed how the FBI interviewed a priest and a choir director of a Richmond parish affiliated with the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), a priestly fraternity whose founder was excommunicated for defying the direct orders of Pope St. John Paul II in 1988, as FBI agents were drafting their memo.
Special Agent in Charge Stanley Meador also told Congress that he intended to use the memo as a means of “outreach” with Catholic leaders in the diocese of Richmond. The report noted, “Meador’s attempt to rationalize the purpose of the memorandum as simply a mechanism for community ‘outreach’ is a weak effort to gloss over the concerning rhetoric directed towards Catholic sects and conservative viewpoints.” Meador told Congress that he was unable to conduct “community outreach” because the memo was leaked too early. However, he eventually admitted that the memo was unnecessary. The report concluded, “Meador’s rationalization of the memorandum as a community engagement exercise defies belief.”
The congressional report also explained that the FBI’s recently-concluded internal report was unable to include details about how the memo was used or what impact it had on further investigations since the memo and any reference to it on the FBI’s database was deleted. The report noted, “On the same day that the memorandum became publicly available, Deputy Director Abbate ordered Meador to ‘pull it down.’ Meador interpreted Abbate’s instruction as an order to expunge the memorandum from all FBI Richmond systems.”
Prior to the memo being leaked to the public, “the document would have remained in an FBI-wide system. During his transcribed interview, Meador testified that the Richmond Field Office had received no concerns about the contents of the memorandum until it became public.” The report added, “It is concerning that if a whistleblower had not disclosed the existence of the memorandum, then an official FBI document of its nature — one that infringes on religious liberties — would still be in effect.”
Furthermore, the report exposed that discussions are still “ongoing” regarding the memo being made “an external, FBI-wide product.” Meador told Congress that the memo was going to be used by “other intelligence analysts across the country.” Some disciplinary measures were enacted, including human resources and analysis training. The congressional report concluded:
“Although these corrective measures are warranted, they alone are not sufficient. The FBI must be held accountable for its actions. It is not enough for the FBI to investigate itself and remedy its own wrongdoings, especially when it involves law-enforcement overreach involving fundamental religious freedoms. … In the interim, the FBI must take decisive action to rebuild public trust. FBI Richmond has not issued a public apology or removed any of the employees involved in creating the document.”
In comments to TWS, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, said, “The Interim House Report on the FBI probe of Catholics is much more alarming than previously noted. … A purge of the guilty parties in the FBI must begin.”
Hawley declared, “We need to reevaluate a lot that’s going on at the FBI, beginning at the very top. Chris Wray should have been fired a long time ago. If he had any decency, he would resign.” He further explained, “The unifying principle is if you are pro-life, if you are pro-family, and if you’re willing to stand up for it, you may get an FBI Swat team at your door. You may get an FBI informant in a pew next to you at church.”
Hawley added that Wray has presided over this assault on First Amendment rights, saying, “This is a pattern now under him at the FBI. And he hasn’t done anything about it. He has blessed it, in fact, and he needs to resign for it.”
S.A. McCarthy serves as a news writer at The Washington Stand.