Probe of retracted FBI memo on 'radical traditionalist' Catholics finds 'no evidence' of religious bias

WASHINGTON (OSV News) -- A review by the Department of Justice's watchdog found "no evidence" of religious bias in the creation of a leaked and since-retracted FBI memo that suggested some "radical traditionalist" Catholics pose threats of racially or ethnically motivated violence.

Members of Congress requested information about the document, ordering the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General to conduct a 120-day review. In an April 18 report detailing its investigation, the OIG said although "there was no evidence of malicious intent or an improper purpose," the document "failed to adhere to analytic tradecraft standards and evinced errors in professional judgment," creating "the appearance that the FBI had inappropriately considered religious beliefs and affiliation as a basis for conducting investigative activity," and "reflected a lack of training and awareness concerning proper domestic terrorism terminology."

The employees involved in drafting, editing and reviewing the document "failed to adhere to FBI standards," the report said. In response to the investigation, the report said, the FBI "instituted corrective actions, including expanding training on analytical tradecraft standards and domestic terrorism terminology, enhancing review and approval requirements for intelligence products involving a sensitive investigative matter, and formally admonishing the employees involved."

"We did not assess, and therefore do not comment on, the corrective actions taken by the FBI," the report added.

In a statement provided to OSV News April 19, a spokesperson for the FBI said, "We thank the Department of Justice's Office of Inspector General for its review."

"The FBI has said numerous times that the intelligence product did not meet our exacting standards and was quickly removed from FBI systems," the statement said. "We also have said there was no intent or actions taken to investigate Catholics or anyone based on religion; this was confirmed by the findings of the OIG. The FBI's mission is to protect our communities from potential threats while simultaneously upholding the constitutional rights of all Americans. We do not conduct investigations based solely on First Amendment protected activity, including religious practices."

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," adding 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 whole as a threat or unfairly scrutinizing their worship, and accused the Biden administration of orchestrating improper religious surveillance.

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

According to the report, the FBI opened an assessment of an individual identified as "Defendant A" in 2019, "after he made online statements advocating civil war and the murder of politicians."

Defendant A later was overheard "making comments about political violence while purchasing several AR-type rifles, multiple high-capacity magazines, and large quantities of .223 ammunition," and was later arrested by local police "after he vandalized and slashed the tires of a parked car."

Defendant A pleaded guilty to felony vandalism charges and as a part of his guilty plea agreed to avoid contact with firearms and related materials. He was documented while in jail as using "increasingly violent rhetoric" and indicating "that he would commit violence against certain racial and religious minorities," including against Jews. Within a week of his release, he violated the conditions of his guilty plea and sentence by visiting the firearms sections of various sporting goods stores.

"Based on Defendant A's online rhetoric, threats, and other activity, an FBI Richmond task force had been aware of Defendant A since 2019 and continued to monitor him," the report said. "They identified a social media profile associated with Defendant A that included Nazi symbols and rhetoric, as well as posts advocating killing police officers, 'ganging up on and beating' racial and religious minorities, conducting a mass shooting at a school for special needs children, taking up armed resistance against the government, learning how to manufacture pipe bombs, and using untraceable means to purchase supplies to manufacture 3D-printed weapons."

In early 2022, Defendant A began to attend a church "associated with an international religious society that advocates traditional Catholic theology and liturgy but is not considered by the Vatican to be in full communion with the Catholic Church," the report continued, adding he demonstrated anti-Semetic rhetoric in online conversations about that church, and described himself in his social media profile as "Fascist and Catholic" and a "radical-traditional (rad-trad) Catholic clerical fascist."

"Based on his online communications, investigators determined that Defendant A was attempting to actively recruit other individuals with similar belief systems" and "had begun talking about an attack," including "discussing plans to carry out attacks, including making comments to others (the church) about his intent to commit violence." Investigators expressed concern about the safety of the church and those who attend it.

An investigator who identified himself as an FBI agent questioned some members of that community, including its priest, specifically about Defendant A, not their religious practices, the report said.

"As described in more detail below, this led the FBI to discuss expanding outreach to other area churches to help educate clergy about potential signs that an individual was mobilizing to commit violence and establish a process for reporting suspicious behavior," the report said.

Defendant A was later indicted in federal court on one count of possessing ammunition while a convicted felon and one count of possessing destructive devices, and he pleaded guilty to possessing destructive devices. His sentencing is scheduled for September of this year.

As a part of its investigation process, the report said, the bureau sometimes creates documents about sociological or environmental variables that can impact its work, citing as an example research on sports betting after some jurisdictions legalized it more broadly. In response to the investigation surrounding Defendant A, an analyst was intrigued by that individual's interest in the church.

The analyst said "that there was no evidence that Defendant A was being radicalized at (the church), because he had been on the FBI's radar 'as an unstable, dangerous individual' before 'any association with any Catholic related entity whatsoever;' rather, the concern was that Defendant A was attending (the church) and 'interacting with a group of people who … may not understand, or know what to do with someone of his caliber or … his mindset,' and that other (comparable individuals) similarly might be attracted to other parishes."

One analyst was cited in the report as saying any suggestion that he was motivated by anti-Catholic bias was "patently false," rather, he sought to "promote outreach to the Catholic Church, in part to protect that community from potentially violent actors." A second analyst said similarly, arguing the intent behind their actions "was to try to protect these houses of worship by sensitizing them to a potential threat to their congregations." They said they began drafting the document "in November 2022, following the arrest of Defendant A on state charges."

Investigators said they asked both analysts to explain how they chose the term "radical-traditionalist Catholic." Both said that they initially learned the term during the investigation of Defendant A, arguing that the individual in question referred to himself as a "rad-trad Catholic clerical fascist" on social media.

Some of the groups named in the withdrawn FBI memo identify as Catholic, but have taken positions flouting 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 document is also far-right antisemitic internet personality Nick Fuentes, who publicly promotes himself as a Catholic and who the memo says has ties to "white Christian nationalism."

Fuentes, who frequently posts online 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.

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