Richmond FBI Office Used Undercover Agents to Spy on Traditional Catholics

by Robin Beres

The United States has not always been a bastion of religious freedom. When Virginia became an English colony in 1607, the English considered religious differences just as treasonous as political differences. Sure, Elizabeth I had reinstalled the Church of England following Queen Mary’s tumultuous reign, but the possibility of another Catholic on the throne remained a threat for decades.

As a result, English rulers decreed the Church of England to be the only official church in Virginia. For nearly two hundred years, there was no religious freedom in the colony. Even other Protestant denominations, such as Presbyterians and Baptists, were persecuted.

It wasn’t until 1786 that the Virginia General Assembly enacted Bill No. 82, “A Bill for establishing religious freedom.” Written by Thomas Jefferson and guided through the Virginia legislature by James Madison, the bill, eventually known as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, was strongly backed by leaders of other religious factions.

The bill stipulated that no government had the legitimate authority to establish or compel anyone to hold certain religious beliefs. Jefferson firmly believed that if this newly-born nation was to survive, all men must be given the freedom to determine their own beliefs.

The bill was the first attempt to get religion out of government and government out of religion. Eventually the act became the basis of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment declaration that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” The bill also confirmed Virginia as the birthplace of America’s religious freedom.

Little wonder then why many Virginians were stunned and concerned to learn of a January memo issued by an analyst with the Richmond FBI’s field office. The memo seemed to determine there were white supremacists masquerading as Catholics who prefer the Latin Mass. The author of the “analysis” seems to have even created a name for this newly-discovered group: “Radical-Traditionalist Catholics” or RTCs.

With little to no supporting documentation, the analyst apparently believes that a preference for hearing the Catholic Mass in Latin and holding on to other traditional, pre-Vatican II beliefs is equivalent to an “adherence to anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ and white supremacist ideology.”

In fairness, whoever wrote the memo was magnanimous enough to draw a distinction between “traditional Catholics,” and RTCs, whom he claims espouse “more extremist ideological beliefs and violent rhetoric.” However, the writer doesn’t provide any specifics as to what differentiates a traditionalist and an RTC. Nor does he provide any evidence of exactly what those extremist beliefs and violent rhetoric are.

But the document was reviewed and OK’d for release by the Richmond bureau’s Chief Division Counsel. It was sent to field offices across the country. The memo was soon leaked to outside sources. Someone was concerned enough to notify members of Congress.

When the U.S. House Judiciary Committee was contacted about the memo earlier this year, the committee chair, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), requested further information from the FBI. On March 23, the FBI sent over an 18-page “substandard and partial” heavily redacted response. But it did provide enough information to indicate that the Richmond office had employed “at least one undercover agent” in its investigations.

The Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena to FBI Director Christopher Wray demanding all records related to the probe. In an April 10 letter to Wray, Jordan wrote: “Based on the limited information produced by the FBI to the Committee, we now know that the FBI relied on at least one undercover agent to produce its analysis, and that the FBI proposed that its agents engage in outreach to Catholic parishes to develop sources among the clergy and church leadership to inform on Americans practicing their faith.”

The FBI says it is fully cooperating with congressional requests. A bureau spokesperson said “the FBI is not anti-Catholic in any way, shape, or form, and does not target people of any faith because of their religious beliefs.” He also noted that when Wray learned about the field report in early March, the director was “aghast.”

Wray says he immediately had the bureau withdraw the memo’s assessment, claiming it isn’t in line with FBI standards. When Attorney General Merrick Garland was questioned by the Senate about the investigation, he told senators: “The Justice Department does not do that, it does not do investigations based on religion. I saw the document, it’s appalling….”

The contents of the memo have generated intense backlash. Law professors at Catholic colleges and universities have commented on the “troubling” aspects of it.

Richmond’s Diocesan Bishop, Barry C. Knestout, is understandably concerned. He issued a statement noting that, “A preference for traditional forms of worship and holding closely to the Church’s teachings on marriage, family, human sexuality, and the dignity of the human person does not equate with extremism.”

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares and 19 other state attorneys general sent a letter to both Wray and Garland condemning the memo as “anti-Catholic” and noting “Virginia is the birthplace of religious freedom and has a long history of protecting the inalienable right to live your faith free from government interference or intimidation.”

An FBI office investigating imagined associations between white supremacists and Catholics — or any other religious group — because of their positions on things like transgender rights and abortion is very dangerous. Congress is right to delve into the origins of this memo and make sure nothing like it happens again.

If one agent in Richmond’s small FBI office can launch an attack on people of one faith, there’s no telling what the entire FBI, if it is truly weaponized and politicized, could do to people of all faiths.