Senators allege FBI 'withheld material information' from inquiry into retracted Catholic memo

WASHINGTON (OSV News) -- A group of U.S. senators recently sent a letter to the FBI alleging the bureau shirked congressional oversight amid lawmakers' inquiries into a leaked FBI memo that suggested some "radical traditionalist" Catholics pose threats of racially or ethnically motivated violence.

In that since-retracted memo dated Jan. 23, 2023, an analyst at the FBI's Richmond Division said that "Radical Traditionalist Catholics" are "typically characterized by the rejection of the Second Vatican Council." The memo said the ideology can include an "adherence to anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ and white supremacist ideology."

While the memo differentiated between "radical traditionalist" Catholics as "separate and distinct" from "traditionalist Catholics" or Catholics who "simply prefer the Traditional Latin Mass and pre-Vatican II teachings," some accused the bureau of labeling Catholics as a threat or unfairly scrutinizing their worship.

The memo was retracted and condemned by both Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray, the latter having been initially appointed to the post by then-President Donald Trump.

Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in a Jan. 31, 2024, letter signed by 14 of their Senate colleagues, wrote to Wray Jan. 31 alleging the bureau has not adequately responded to their inquiries about its internal review following the original leak of the memo.

The senators also alleged that "one of the analysts who authored the Richmond memo drafted another memo for external distribution 'on the same topic,' in unison with the Counterterrorism Division."

"The FBI must immediately provide a coherent and complete response to the Senate," the letter said.

Grassley said in a statement, "The fact an FBI office produced even one discriminatory document like this -- let alone two -- is deeply troubling."

"It's unfathomable the agency's response has been to cut corners, dodge questions and stiff-arm Congress," Grassley said. "From where I'm sitting, it seems like the FBI is working to sweep the issue under the rug rather than address it."

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, a signatory to the Grassley-Graham letter, said in a Feb. 5 statement, "Freedom of religion is foundational to our country, and I am fiercely opposed to any efforts that would degrade or impair that right for all Americans."

"The FBI memo targeting one specific religion -- in this case Catholics -- in and of itself is abhorrent, and it is now clear this memo was distributed and used to target Catholics much more broadly than the FBI let on," Risch said. "As if the creation of the memo was not bad enough, the agency deleted it and America's chief law enforcement officer, the FBI Director, seems to be making a conscious effort to withhold information surrounding it. The FBI owes America answers."

Asked for comment about the claims in the senators' letter, an FBI spokesperson told OSV News in a written statement, "Any characterization that the FBI is targeting Catholics is false."

"As the FBI has stated many times, the intelligence product did not meet our exacting standards and was quickly removed from FBI systems," the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson referenced Wray's testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Dec. 5, 2023, where he explained the Richmond field memo referenced the cases of two other field offices and the communications with those offices were to verify the details of those cases were accurately described.

"The Director was accurate when he testified that the intelligence product was produced by one field office and that the authors included a couple of sentences referring to cases from other offices," the spokesperson continued. "An internal review conducted by the FBI found no malicious intent to target Catholics or members of any other religious faith, and did not identify any investigative steps taken as a result of the product."

The spokesperson added that the FBI is "committed to upholding the constitutional rights of all Americans and we do not conduct investigations based solely on First Amendment protected activity."

"The FBI investigates violence, threats of violence, and violations of federal law," the spokesperson said. "We have provided hundreds of pages of documents and briefings to Congress to address our findings and the numerous actions we are taking to address identified shortcomings."

The groups named in the withdrawn FBI memo identify as Catholic, but have taken hostile positions regarding either the Catholic Church's leadership or its official teachings -- including one group denounced by its local bishop as "blatantly antisemitic" and forbidden by the Vatican from calling itself Catholic.

Among those named in the FBI memo is also far-right antisemitic personality Nick Fuentes, who publicly promotes himself as a Catholic and who the memo says has ties to "white Christian nationalism."

Fuentes, who frequently broadcasts from the Chicago area, has publicly used antisemitic rhetoric, including in a Dec. 8, 2023, livestream where he called for "perfidious Jews" and others to face "the death penalty" when his America First movement takes power, adding, "This is Christ's country."

"They must be absolutely annihilated when we take power," he said.

The term "perfidious Jews" was invoked for centuries in the older Roman Rite's Good Friday liturgy until St. John XXIII, the pope who called the Second Vatican Council, ordered it removed in 1959 -- just 14 years after Nazi Germany's genocide of 6 million Jewish men, women and children across Europe ended. Historically, Good Friday was one of the most dangerous days for Europe's Jews, who could suffer deadly violence by Christian mobs.

The other signatories on Grassley and Graham's letter besides Risch were Republican Sens. Josh Hawley, Mo.; Ted Cruz, Texas; James Lankford, Okla.; Eric Schmitt, Mo.; Kevin Cramer, N.D.; Roger Marshall, Kan.; Rick Scott, Fla.; Todd Young, Ind.; Deb Fischer, Neb.; Mike Braun, Ind.; John Hoeven, N.D.; Mike Lee, Utah; and Marsha Blackburn, Tenn.

- - - Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) @kgscanlon.