Religious war in county courthouse

REDWOOD CITY– A bizarre religious battle between an alleged Alabama cult and a man hell-bent on its destruction is burning its way through the San Mateo County Courthouse, with both sides suing each other for wild slander, printed allegations of attempted murder, mafia involvement, money laundering, weapons dealing and spiritual chicanery.

The unusual case involves a suit filed in Redwood City by Phillip Kronzer, a resident of Los Gatos and Reno, Nev., against Caritas of Birmingham, a spiritual community in Alabama dedicated to promoting the apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Medjugorje, Bosnia Herzegovina, which six youths claimed to have witnessed in 1981.

Founded in 1988 by Terry Colafrancesco, a former landscape artist, Caritas raises almost $2 million per year promoting the apparitions through newsletters and pilgrimages to Medjugorje, according to the nonprofit organization’s IRS documents.

Kronzer, a self-described “cult buster,” says the apparitions are a sham and that Colafranceso preys on the piety of impressionable believers to enrich himself and his group. In 2001, Kronzer, a retired real-estate millionaire, started the self-financed Kronzer Foundation with a Redwood City post office box and the explicit goal of “exposing” groups like Caritas that promote the Medjugorje visions.

The battle between the two men arrived quietly in Redwood City in September 2002 when Kronzer accused Caritas of libel for naming him, in a 136-page fund-raising booklet, as a member of a “network of Satanists” that allegedly tried to murder Colafrancesco.

The booklet describes a night when Colafrancesco came home from church with his family to find their Birmingham-area home filled with gas, the stove knobs turn on and the pilot light extinguished. Caritas said in court, however, that he blamed the broader network and not Kronzer specifically for the alleged incident.

Later, Kronzer amended his complaint, accusing Caritas of sending agents to harass and stalk him.

In January 2003, Caritas struck back with a libel lawsuit against Kronzer after he sent out at least three letters to associates that, among other things, accused Colafrancesco of being “in bed with the Italian mafia” and committing a long list of crimes, including weapons dealing, smuggling, money laundering, racketeering, conspiracy to commit murder and other crimes, according to Caritas’ cross-complaint.

Both sides later filed motions saying that their statements fall under the protection of the First Amendment and that their opponents’ case should be dismissed. A three-judge appellate panel tossed out both motions on Feb. 23.

The complaints, cross-complaints, mutual motions to suppress and appeals have dragged the case on for more than a year and a half. It has not yet reached the trial stage, and the damages sought in the case total less than $25,000.

“It’s the principle,” Kronzer explained. “The guy should be put out of business before he ruins any more families. Plain and simple.”

To Kronzer, this is not just a religious crusade. It’s personal. “Visionaries” similar to Colafrancesco in Medjugorje claimed they relayed messages from the Virgin Mary and fascinated Kronzer and his wife, who are both devout Catholics. The couple even contributed to Caritas in the late 1980s. However, while Kronzer says he grew skeptical of the Medjugorje claims in the 1990s, his wife’s interest grew increasingly fervent.

On his 60th birthday on June 30, 1994, his wife left him to follow a visionary, later serving him with a 30-year restraining order, Kronzer said.

“That’s when I began my investigation,” Kronzer said. “Unless you have been a victim of these people, you can’t understand it.”

So far, the legal battles with Caritas have cost Kronzer $2.5 million.

In 2001, he filed a lawsuit in Sacramento claiming Caritas, and other visionary groups, were committing charity fraud by promoting the Medjugorje visions, Kronzer said. The case was dismissed before it reached trial, with the judge citing the groups’ right to free speech.

Kronzer said he tried again in late 2001 by bankrolling a suit issued by five former Caritas residents who alleged that the community was a “cult” that brainwashed and exploited its approximately 50 residents for the personal enrichment of Colafrancesco. The suit is pending in Alabama state court.

Kronzer named Caritas as a defendant in a third suit in Florida on Aug. 29, 2003. Most of the suit was primarily directed against a software company where Kronzer lost a large investment.

He also alleged that Caritas was behind a series of letters containing a white powder and an anthrax threat that arrived at Los Gatos and Campbell police stations in May 2003 but appeared to come from Kronzer. Kronzer said he was later cleared of suspicion in the case and subsequently accused Caritas of framing him as the source of the letter in order to discredit him.

Colafrancesco refused to comment and referred all questions to Caritas attorneys, who would not comment on any of the cases.

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