U.S. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) pressed Attorney General Merrick Garland during a heated exchange at a Judiciary Committee hearing on March 1 over a leaked FBI document suggesting that federal agents were covertly infiltrating Catholic churches.
“The FBI field office in Richmond, Virginia on January 23rd, issued a memo where they advocated for and I quote ‘New avenues for trip-wire and source development against Traditionalist Catholics, including those who favor Latin Mass,’” Hawley recounted before pressing Garland with the question. “Attorney General, are you cultivating sources and spies in Latin Mass parishes and other Catholic parishes around the country?”
Garland replied, “The Justice Department does not do that. It does not do investigations based on religion. I saw the document you sent, it’s appalling. It’s appalling.”
After a brief interruption by Hawley, Garland continued: “I am in complete agreement with you. I understand that the FBI has withdrawn it and is now looking into how this could ever have happened.”
Hawley interjected, “How did it happen?”
Garland reiterated, “That’s what they’re looking into. But, I’m totally in agreement with you, that document is appalling.”
Over the last few years, federal officials have begun prioritizing investigations into domestic terrorism. FBI officials say they they are concerned about radicalized individuals infiltrating the Catholic church.
According to the eight-page FBI memo, the Bureau was targeting Catholics after suggesting “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists in radical-traditionalist Catholic ideology” may be within the church’s ranks. Federal officials claimed to have made their assessment with “high confidence” based on unspecified investigations, parishioners attendance at church, and Christian-related posts on social media.
The FBI memo states indicators that would cause the Bureau to consider Catholics less of a threat included attending church less and decreasing their activity on social media.
Federal authorities also stated in the unclassified bulletin that they believe Catholics would become more of a threat “over the next 12 to 24 months in the run-up to the next general election cycle,” which would create new opportunities for the FBI to pursue “mitigation efforts.”
Language the FBI finds worthy of investigatory scrutiny includes use of the term “groyper,” a reference to an image of a cartoon frog named Pepe — which has falsely been labeled a symbol of white nationalism — as well as conversations opposing abortion.
During Garland’s questioning on Capitol Hill, Hawley outlined evidence showing that the basis for the Bureau’s targeting of Catholics was not based on any intelligence or legitimate investagatory predicate, but rather the leftist activist organization Southern Poverty Law Center labeling religious individuals as being affiliated with hate groups.