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A Friend of Medjugorje (Terry Colafrancesco) fits the profile of a cult leader

and his group “Caritas of Birmingham” can be classified as a cult according to criteria of International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA)

Other languages: English, Italiano

“None of us seemed to realize what was going on. These are very educated people, people who were very sincere about what they were doing. We didn't even realize we were under this control. We even joked about it. We said we had all the qualities of a cult. [1]

Steve Littiken, former resident and member of Caritas of Birmingham for 8 years

“I know that Caritas of Birmingham have no official tie with the Bishop. From what I have seen on the web site, the group sounds to me very much like a cult. I would discourage attending. [2]

Dr. Richard Geraghty, professor of philosophy at St. Joseph’s House of Studies, the college-level facility of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word

Icsa International Cultic Studies Association

At the May 2001 American Family Foundation Conference in Newark, New Jersey, several ex-members of Caritas of Birmingham offered their stories to a distinguished panel of psychologists and cult exit counselors. It was the overwhelming opinion of the panel that the leader of Caritas of Birmingham, Terry Colafrancesco (self-styled “A Friend of Medjugorje”), fits the profile of a cult leader, much the same as David Koresh and Jim Jones were leaders of their groups. There are several factors that determine whether a group can be classified as a true cult.

Criteria of cult classification as provided by International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), formerly the American Family Foundation:

  • The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

    The ex Caritas of Birmingham members reported that at the Caritas Community, Terry Colafrancesco (A Friend of Medjugorje) is the sole authority, dissension is not tolerated. Terry Colafrancesco through his self described connection with the Medjugorje visionary Marija Pavlovic Lunetti, is the final arbiter of all matters, personal, business, and spiritual, at the community.

    See e.g. document "Set of doctrines, which Caritas of Birmingham, under the sole dictates of Terry Colafrancesco has developed exclusively for itself". [3]

    And e.g. here: “After 9 years of living side by side with Terry, I can tell you my heartfelt and greatly discerned discovery is that Terry is a very sick control freak who is not satisfied unless he possesses complete control of people's lives. He dissolved our authority as parents over our children and manipulated our kids to see only himself as provider and prophet.” [4]

  • Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

    Those who have questioned Terry Colafrancesco’s authority have been banished and accused of spreading slander. Relatives who are critical of Terry Colafrancesco (A Friend of Medjugorje) are denied access to their adult children who still reside at Caritas of Birmingham. Mail and phone calls never reach their loved ones.

    See e.g. here: “Greg is my only son and we used to be so very close and now living in "Our Lady's loving community that SHE ESTABLISHED HERSELF" He will not see or speak with me unless I totally agree with and support Terry!” [4]

    And e.g. here: “If we call, they hang up. If we send a letter, she doesn't get any mail” ... “His reasoning for doing that is because the outside world will poison the purity of the community and that's the way Koresh was, that's the way Jones was.” [5]

  • Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

    Former members report 12 hour work day’s beginning with prayers at 4:30AM. Mammoth prayer sessions and talks are lead by Terry Colafrancesco (A Friend of Medjugorje) who according to eye witnesses has been seen with his eyes rolled into their sockets at such events.

    See e.g. here: “Ex-residents including one-time Colafrancesco lieutenant Pat Flynn accuse Colafrancesco of personally profiting from their donations and overworking both adults and children who live at the site.
    "We were in a continuous state of people being overloaded with too much work," said Flynn, who left last year with his family and now lives in Michigan. "With the lack of sleep it would take on a tone of insanity. Morale was low."
    Others accuse Caritas of Birmingham of being a cult that distances its members from their relatives. The mission has no TV or radios, and members are not allowed to read newspapers or magazines.”

    And e.g. here: “"It became more oppressive every day," she said. "We couldn't go out without permission and it got to the point we didn't have authority over our own children. We felt we had to leave. It took us a long time to see."
    She said the leaders use sleep deprivation, fasting and physical penance - like walking long distances on your knees - as tools to manipulate the followers.
    "You are always drained. The leaders are very charismatic. People always think that it can't happen to me, but (these people) know how to manipulate you," she said.”

  • The leadership dictates sometimes in great detail how members should think, act, and feel (for example: members must get permission from leaders to date, change jobs, get married; leaders may prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, how to discipline children, and so forth).

    Terry Colafrancesco (A Friend of Medjugorje) has dictated every last detail of the Caritas of Birmingham members’ lives including banning mayonnaise from the compound, keeping children from attending public schools, regulating when married members may have sex, and segregating young adults making a normal, healthy lifestyle impossible.

    See e.g. here: “Colafrancesco has subjected virtually all of the behavior of the people at Caritas to his scrutiny. Permission must be sought for simple things such as a parent going to a store to buy necessary clothing for a child. On one occasion, several members had to ask permission to bathe following a ten-hour workday outdoors in 90-degree temperatures, which was denied.”

    “Colafrancesco has manipulated and directed several individuals to make life decisions outside of their own free will. Terry has also on many occasions supported the notion of arranged marriages and has demanded that courtship be submitted to his direction and direct involvement.” [3]

    And e.g. here: “Among their complaints were long work hours, poor schooling and supervision of children, and an environment where virtually every detail, from who leaves the property to the food eaten by the community, is controlled by Terry Colafrancesco, founder and president of Caritas of Birmingham.”

    “On one occasion, the Flynns and the Littikens said, the married couples were told to abstain from sex for the 40 days leading up to a visit from Marija Pavlovic Lunetti.
    "It was supposed to be a way to prepare ourselves, a way to be pure," said Pat Flynn, 41. "Human sexuality is a form of expression. There isn't a type of expression at Caritas that Terry didn't have control of."”

  • The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).

    See e.g. here: “Colafrancesco has stated that there is no priest on Earth that is capable of understanding his mission. He has also affirmed that the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II has not been given the wisdom that he (Colafrancesco) has been given regarding the purpose of his mission and the practice of some aspects of Faith and Morals.”

    “Mr. Colafrancesco maintains that the Holy Church simply has not yet discovered some truths that he currently understands, such as television is the beast of Revelation Chapter 12. And that going to a restaurant, buying a gallon of milk or a newspaper on Sunday is mortal sin equal to murder or adultery.”

    “The Children at Caritas have been instructed in the school by one of Colafrancesco's agents that the Colafrancesco bloodline is particularly blessed and elevated in holiness by God. The assertion has been made that there is a good possibility that St. Francis was a member of this same bloodline.” [3]

    And e.g. here: “The sickest thing was when she told us Terry told her it was a sign when Mother Teresa died, that year, 4 years ago, that she was "called to Caritas which does the most important work in the world".” [4]

  • The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

    See e.g. here: “There are over 200 bizarre stories of Terry's cultic control and strange behavior. Also you did not hear the Loving community call black people niggers while you visited them. We didn't say it in front of people. We were only racists in secret. This is Terry's influence. People learned racism from him. His wife even admitted that Terry took her to a KKK meeting where they wore the costumes and everything. She told this to another woman in the group when she was mad at Terry, so that we would somehow understand who this guy really was.” [4]

    And e.g. here: “Terry Colafrancesco teaches to his group that black people are "niggers," which were created by God for servitude and were much better off when they were slaves.
    Terry also teaches contempt for women as the carriers of the "spirit of Eve".”

  • The group's leader is not accountable to any authorities (as are, for example, military commanders and ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream denominations).

    Colafrancesco (A Friend of Medjugorje) claims he is seeking the status of a religious order from the Vatican yet a high ranking Cardinal has denied that any such application is pending and would almost certainly be refused. [8] The local Bishop has no connection with Caritas.

    See e.g. here: “All who support this organization erroneously believe that Caritas is Catholic. Caritas of Birmingham is not associated in any way or form with the Roman Catholic Church nor its local authority, the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama.”

    “Mr. Colafrancesco answers to no earthly authority. He has no spiritual director, no superior and no one who oversees his leadership. He has no credentials to teach, whatsoever.” [3]

    And e.g. here: “In the past, the diocese has distanced itself from Caritas. In former Bishop Raymond Boland's 1991 statement on Caritas, which the diocese still uses, the diocesan position is outlined: "Caritas has absolutely no connection with the Diocese of Birmingham. There are no canonical links."
    In a letter that Ed Locks received in January, James Frances Stafford, a Catholic cardinal based in Rome, expressed concern for the families who have children at Caritas. He also said Caritas has no chance of being recognized as a lay organization in the Roman Catholic church.”

  • The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members' participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).

    See e.g. Excerpts from shocking testimonies of former members of Caritas of Birmingham regarding scandalous fleecing of gullible people and money related deceptions: “On our pilgrimages to Medjugorje, Terry would have us try to find out who in the group had lots of money. Then we or Terry, if he was there, would try to focus on them specifically to get large donations.”

    “In early 1997, Terry, Joan and I flew to Tucson, Arizona to ask yet another rich couple for $3,000,000.00 to clear up all Caritas' debts and set us up in a good position to "evangelize".”

    “The last two shipments of humanitarian aid to the Medjugorje region were bogus. We used the guise of charity to smuggle without tariffs our own goods and building materials for our own purposes. We placed at the last two feet of the container things such as blankets, clothing, and other relief supplies that make it appear as though the entire container was filled with these things. On the last shipment, Terry had me design a large poster with an illustration of our Lady on it. The poster was taped to the dummy supplies so it would be stark and visible when border guards opened the container for inspection. On the Poster, in Croatian, it stated that this was all relief materials to help the poor victims of the devastating war and to rebuild their bombed Churches. This was a total lie. The container was filled with all products to build a cabin for us to use on the property Terry Colafrancesco recently bought in Medjugorje and antique furniture to furnish it and our mission house. The lie that it was all humanitarian aid was a good disguise to smuggle our stiff into Medjugorje and avoid high tariffs that merchants normally had to pay. On one of the shipments, Terry Colafrancesco smuggled a pick-up truck cleverly hidden in a container. When Gojko Jerkovic, (he helped Terry with the shipments), saw the truck, he became very angry and expressed outrage over the fact that he could be imprisoned over this.”

    “When Paolo and Marija and their family were visiting in 1998, I was told to participate in a deception to get them to stay longer. Prior to this visit, tens of thousands of dollars were spent to impress Paolo and Marija so that they would commit to live in the community for a certain about of time each year. This was another way Terry Colafrancesco manipulated the visionary to control the apparition.” [10]

    And e.g. here: “Marija, in Medjugorje, has been notified by those who left about all of Terry's lies and deception, even including her. Yet, she is only human and from what I've noticed through meeting her, she feels obligated to Terry for decorating her house, etc....and let's not forget the part he played to help her brother..(yet, no one knows that Terry was given over $50,000 to bring her here). People have even given her money in order that they might meet her when she has come to the U.S. However, we have proof that he never intends to make good on those promises as they never happen! We know, because someone who left, told us they had to keep making excuses why they could never meet with Marija and coincidently more money was even requested from these people in hopes that next time the meeting may be possible.” [4]

  • The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.

    See e.g. here: “I used to work there for about two years and this man literally ripped my brother and I apart and convinced him that he was weak for staying in close contact with his family.”

    “My grandmother is dying of pancreatic cancer and is not expected to live much longer as she has now broken her hip. Yet, my brother believes (through Terry's words of "wisdom") that if she is dying it is because we are going against Terry! My poor brother is under so much mind control that he actually believes this mess!”

    “Just before we left, I had to sit across the aisle from the commune in church. There was no pew available in the section where the group normally sat that could fit my whole family. Two days later, I was called into Terry's office and accused of violating the sacred unity of the community by visually separating myself from them. Terry told me angrily that I, in doing so, opened a door to individualism that would take years to close. He is very sick. He decreed that my seven year old daughter was to accompany his son (21 years old, unmarried) and one of the single women (23 years old) on a road trip where they would spend the night in the back of a truck. Regardless if anything sexual happened or not, this was not healthy for my little girl to witness. I refused to let her go. Terry got mad and told me that I had better never go against any decision he ever makes again. I remind you, this was MY daughter.” [4]

  • Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.

    See e.g. here: “Ed and Patsy Locks of Jacksonville, Fla., have three children who live at Caritas, Greg, 32, Jenny, 25, and Erin, 22. All of them, Patsy Locks said, no longer return phone calls and refuse to see her or her husband.
    Gail McCausland of Memphis said that whenever she drove to Caritas to visit her two children, one of whom has since left Caritas, they would hardly notice she was there. "They'd be working, and they'd be very oblivious to us," she said. "It was so hard to deal with because we were all so close. They were different people." Since leaving the community, McCausland's 27-year-old son, Toby O'Byrnes, has been through a counseling program at the Wellspring Retreat & Resource Center in Albany, Ohio, the nation's only residential treatment facility for recovering cult victims. But her 29-year-old daughter, Shannon O'Byrnes, still lives at Caritas and does not return phone calls, McCausland said. Toby O'Byrnes declined to be quoted.”

    And e.g. here: “My beautiful Erin, 22 was very fond of him. He was on her BVM tour she led for Caritas. Erin was very bright and out-going and loved life and spoke out always to defend her faith in high school. She got an Honors Scholarship to college and was their top student they sent around the country her Freshman year. She wanted to be a BSN and help the sick like Mother Teresa etc. She also wanted a family more than anything. After we sent her to Medj with Greg and Caritas the summer after her Freshman year she came back and wanted to drop out of college because it was all "BAD" and Terry does not believe in higher Ed. at all (naturally!) We were devasted, but said she could take a semester off to pray. After 1 month at Caritas she told us she was never going back and she had "grown spiritually higher than us at Caritas"!!! This was an 18 year old whom we had to force to go to Medj, that summer because she had a summer job! That is when we got a Catholic Atty to go to Bishop F. for us, and the Bis. said I cannot do anything because they are not affiliated with the Church-as you heard him say.”

    “This beautiful young vibrant and good woman is now "sacrificing her life to make up for the sin of playing sports in high school" per terry!!! She is 6 ft tall and played all sports and was a great player for her Catholic school where her Dad was Principal for years. I called her my Lizzie Sunshine and she used to smile all the time-no longer-those that left told us how she suffered! Terry has "consecrated her a single woman for life"!”

    “Our Jenny quit a good job as an awesome writer for a hometown newspaper in St. Augustine, Fl-the religion page! But Terry says ALL the media is BAD and she was to be married but Terry did not approve! The young man was devasted she left for Caritas and did not ever contact him again-terry’s advice!” [4]

  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
  • The group is preoccupied with making money.

    Caritas of Birmingham averages well over a million dollars in income each year, sometime triple that. Ex members reported that donations were spent on such things as beef cattle, acreage, antique furnishings and farm machinery. One donor reported was bilked of $250,000 after being falsely promised a personal audience with the visionary Marija Pavlovic Lunetti. Colafrancesco (A Friend of Medjugorje) personal kingdom consists of a comfortably furnished house with swimming pool at the Caritas of Birmingham compound, a tastefully decorated home in Medjugorje, and two for profit companies using Caritas of Birmingham members as employees.

    See e.g. dozen of testimonies of former “Caritas of Birmingham” members regarding scandalous fleecing of gullible people and money related deceptions, including also: “One wealthy couple from Houston were on one of Caritas' pilgrimages. Shortly after, Terry and I flew to see them. Terry asked them for $389,000.00. He said that if they gave the money, the couple could come and live next door to Caritas to survive the chaos that was coming in January 1st of 2000. - Y2K” [10]

    Also e.g. here “I witnessed large amounts of money being taken in and used for other things than what they were supposed to be. This man has laundered money through those poor, and I mean POOR IN EVERY WAY, PEOPLE'S accounts and has them write checks back to him for his own use. I have black and white proof of this.” [4]

    And e.g. here: “Much of the donations that pour into Caritas, former residents said, were used to purchase expensive equipment for the property. A lot of the heavy equipment has been purchased in the past couple of years, neighbors and former residents said. The inventory, according to neighbors and people who once lived at Caritas, includes a sawmill, a tractor-trailer, a Caterpillar loader and horse trailers.” [9]

  • Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group.

    See e.g. here: “Colafrancesco has continually undermined and effectively and gradually dissolved the structure of the individual families at Caritas since 1991.”
    “Terry assumes all authority over the children in the group and the parents are forced to submit to him and his wife. Families are discouraged from spending time in their own homes. Colafrancesco asserts that the group is really one big family and Terry has made it known that he and his wife are to be considered "Father and Mother" to the group.”

    And e.g. here: “Since he left, O'Neill has spent his time researching cults. He says Colafrancesco's tactics of breaking people down by working them 12 hours a day, six days a week, are classic.” [5]

  • Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

    See e.g. here: “Flynn said the family lived in a trailer inside a compound where roughly 50 people of Roman Catholic faith live.” [7]

    And e.g. here: “Most residents live in mobile homes on the Caritas property, located southeast of Birmingham. Colafrancesco and his family live in a $118,400 house across the road.
    "Adherents are kept under primitive conditions in communal trailers or cabins without adequate heating, running water or sanitation. Children often sleep on the floor because of lack of space," the suit claims.”

  • The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group..

    See e.g. here: “You should have seen the community franticly preparing for Y2K. Terry wields this fear to keep and nurture control over the people's lives there. This past spring, Terry played Eve of Destruction, a song from the 60s on the stereo in the field. He then tried to scare us into thinking that if we were anyplace other than Caritas we would not survive.” [4]

    And e.g. here: “Although all of the people who have left Caritas said they were drawn to the community by its promise of spiritual fulfillment, they said they often felt confused, exhausted and fearful while they were there. They thought about leaving earlier, they said, but were afraid departure would lead to punishment from God.
    "Somehow I got it in my head that (Caritas) was a mission from God, and if I didn't carry out the mission God would strike me down," Littiken said. "But I got to the point where I didn't care anymore. I'd take the chance."”

    “Another reason was they were afraid to leave.
    Often, they said, Colafrancesco spoke of the "coming chastisements," a time when the world would be chastised by God for its sinfulness.
    Although "there would be mass chaos, we (Caritas) would be OK," Pat Flynn said.”

Material in red is from the cult check list maintained by the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) (former American Family Foundation): “Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups - Revised”.

International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA)

The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), formerly the American Family Foundation, describes itself as an "interdisciplinary network of academicians, professionals, former group members, and families who study and educate the public about social-psychological influence and control, authoritarianism, and zealotry in cultic groups, alternative movements, and other environments."

The current executive director is psychologist Michael Langone. The ICSA currently provides education and assistance regarding groups they identify as cults. It publishes the journal Cultic Studies Review.

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., Executive Director of the ICSA, states that "A cult is a group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control designed to advance the goals of the group’s leader, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community... Although many cult members eventually walk out on their own, many, if not most, who leave cults on their own are psychologically harmed, often in ways they do not understand. Some cult members never leave, and some of these are severely harmed. There is no way to predict who will leave, who won’t leave, or who will be harmed."

The ICSA offers assistance and education relating to such groups:

  • It offers assistance for "those who have been adversely affected by a cultic experience or who seek to help others or who are simply interested in the subject. This assistance includes an information service for families, clergy, students, and professionals.
  • It offers "education" on the subject of cults.
  • It publishes the online scholarly journal Cultic Studies Review
  • It maintains an electronic library on the Internet with information on groups and issues regarding psychological manipulation and abuse - Caritas of Birmingham group is included in this library. There is also an online archive offering abstracts of all articles of the Cultic Studies Review.
  • It conducts annual conferences for professionals and workshops for families, former members and mental health professionals.


All documents quoted in this article, together with additional detailed information on Caritas of Birmingham and self-styled "A Friend of Medjugorje" (Terry Colafrancesco) are available in English and Italian languages online at:



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