Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., engaged in a tense exchange with FBI Director Christopher Wray on Tuesday after the release of the report that found the agency’s investigation into traditional Catholics may be more expansive than FBI officials have claimed.
“Now we know that, in fact, FBI agents did approach a priest and a choir director to ask them to inform on parishioners,” Hawley told Wray during a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Dec. 5.
The hearing followed the unveiling on Monday of the House Judiciary Committee’s report detailing the results of a monthslong investigation into a leaked internal FBI memo that discussed investigating Catholics as potential domestic terrorists.
“Good heavens, Director, this is one of the most outrageous targetings — you have mobilized your division, the most powerful law enforcement division in the world, against traditionalist Catholics … and you just told us you have not fired a single person,” Hawley said during the exchange.
Wray argued with Hawley, saying that he was conflating two distinct things: the memo that the Richmond FBI office has since rescinded and a separate investigation into a man who was amassing Molotov cocktails and making threats. In regard to the memo that targeted Catholics, Wray said employees have been admonished and their salaries may be affected.
“We do not and will not conduct investigations based on anybody’s exercise of their constitutionally protected religious [expression],” Wray claimed.
“You have done so, and your memo explicitly asks for it,” Hawley retorted.
The new report delved deeper into the FBI’s efforts to investigate traditionalist Catholics and the now-retracted Richmond FBI memo that alleged a link between so-called “radical traditionalist Catholics” and “the far-right white nationalist movement.” The memo suggested “trip wire or source development” within parishes that offer the traditional Latin Mass and within online communities.
The report found that the internal memo was made available to other FBI field offices, that the FBI may still be looking into the supposed link mentioned in the memo, and that agents interviewed a priest and a choir director affiliated with the Society of St. Pius X in late 2022 — although the FBI claims these interviews were part of a separate investigation and had no relation to the memo.
“The memorandum was spread throughout the FBI, which is contrary to previous assertions that the memorandum was limited to the Richmond Field Office,” the report found, noting that it “was published on an FBI-wide system.”
Although FBI officials have argued that this problem was isolated to one field office, the report found that “the FBI had plans for an external, FBI-wide product based on the Richmond memorandum.” In spite of Wray’s retraction and disavowal of the memo, the report also found that “the FBI may still be attempting to fashion information from the Richmond memorandum into an external-facing document.”
The report cites a private interview the committee held, with Special Agent in Charge Stanley Meador of the Richmond Field Office, which revealed that discussions about a broader document are ongoing.
“I know internally there have been some discussions … throughout the months, of a desire to still try and get this information out somehow, but … I’ve not seen anything as a result of that,” Meador said, according to the report.
When asked to clarify, Meador said he was referring to the “general subject” of the supposed connection between so-called radical traditionalist Catholics and racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists.
The investigation also references information disclosed by a whistleblower about FBI agents interviewing a priest and a choir director at a church associated with the Society of St. Pius X in Richmond. The SSPX holds a canonically irregular status with the Catholic Church due to its founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, consecrating bishops without papal approval.
“The interviews appear to have occurred in November and December 2022 — the same time the analysts started drafting the memorandum,” the report states. “This information, which the FBI has refused to disclose, confirms that the FBI directly communicated with Catholic clergy and staff about parishioners practicing their faith.”
In a statement to CNA on Tuesday, the FBI disputed the report’s claim, saying that the priest and choir director were interviewed “by FBI Richmond during an investigation of an individual threatening violence who has since been arrested [and] … the interviews were not conducted for the domain perspective as characterized by the report.”
“Any characterization that the FBI is targeting Catholics is false,” the statement read. “We have stated repeatedly that the intelligence product prepared by one FBI field office did not meet the exacting standards of the FBI and was quickly removed from FBI systems. 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 committee, however, said in its report that the bureau “continues to resist several of the committee’s requests for transparency and answers.”
The report said that the FBI “must take decisive action to rebuild public trust,” noting that the Richmond office hasn’t issued a public apology nor removed any employees involved in the creation of the memo.