Sep 12, 2023

Catholic 'cult' in California: What do we know?

Catholic News Agency

By Jonah McKeown St. Louis, Mo., Sep 11, 2023

Earlier this month, reports emerged in a California news outlet about alleged sexual abuse that purportedly took place at a commune run by a Catholic pro-life organization, Catholics United for Life.

The allegations come from three biological sisters who say they were abused at various points by men within the organization, which was founded as a Third Order Dominican Catholic community and eventually settled in rural California in the 1970s.

“I know what a cult is, and it was definitely a cult,” Margo, the oldest sister, told NBC Bay Area. 

The sisters, who are identified only by their first names in media reports, said the commune where they grew up, which at least at one point housed “dozens,” was dedicated to families wishing to home-school their children and travel from city to city to engage in pro-life activism. 

The commune was founded by what the sisters describe as a “group of hippies” in the small town of Coarsegold, California, about 40 minutes from the south entrance of Yosemite National Park.

The town is located within the Diocese of Fresno; the diocese declined CNA’s request for comment on whether the group is or has been affiliated with the Church.

Two of the three sisters filed lawsuits in 2022 alleging they were sexually molested or assaulted by different men in the community, including “past and present leaders.” CNA reached out to one of the alleged victims seeking copies of the lawsuits but did not receive a reply. 

Allegations brought by the sisters in the lawsuits allegedly include “forced relationships with older men, separation from their families outside of the commune, being stripped of personal control, and enduring physical and sexual abuse,” the NBC report stated. The sisters also claimed to have witnessed leaders “beating gay men in front of us” in what they described as a form of “conversion therapy.”

The lawsuits name as an alleged abuser the group’s longtime former leader, Hal Barton. Barton died in 2011 and his wife declined to comment when asked by NBC. 

The sisters said certain male leaders’ conduct constituted “grooming” and “culminated in repeated sexual assault and abuse.” They told NBC Bay Area that seeing a recent photo of Catholics United for Life’s current leader at a youth conference spurred them to go public with their stories. 

Two of the sisters said they left the commune decades ago; the third said she left with her family in 2019. Despite everything, at least one of the sisters, Jane, said she still considers herself a Catholic.

“[Catholics United for Life] needs to disband as an entity,” Ruth told NBC Bay Area. 

“The Catholic Church should demand that they do, and they should pay us recompense and reparations for the abuse that we experienced for years.”

NBC’s news story about the suits was shared on social media by the law firm Jeff Anderson & Associates, which has positioned itself as a premier filer of sex abuse lawsuits against religious entities. It was not immediately clear whether attorneys for the Minnesota-based Anderson & Associates filed the lawsuits in question.

What is Catholics United for Life?

Catholics United for Life (CUFL) is a ministry of the St. Martin de Porres Lay Dominican Community, which is part of the Lay Fraternities of St. Dominic’s Eastern Province. Reached by phone, a representative of New Hope Publications, the Dominican community’s main ministry, agreed to pass CNA’s comment request to the appropriate person, but the call was not returned by press time. 

According to the group’s website, CUFL’s main objective is to “support the Catholic Church in its mission to restore the moral principles of the natural law and divine revelation, focusing in a special way on the right to life for all human persons and on the integral part that sexual morality plays in life issues.” CUFL has 13 affiliate groups throughout the United States that offer alternatives to abortion and provide educational services, the website says. 

CUFL’s most recent tax filing, from 2021, shows that the organization is headquartered in New Hope, Kentucky, a small town about an hour south of Louisville and 20 minutes south of Bardstown. The group took in about $74,000 in contributions that year, the filings show. 

CUFL puts on an annual youth conference called Ignite Your Torch. The website for the conference says that it is a “high school Catholic youth conference in which ‘on fire’ young priests and religious seek to ignite the faith of teens through engaging talks, small-group discussions, and workshops as well as personal interaction at recreation, meals, and just hanging out.”

Ignite Your Torch is “eucharistic-centered, devoted to our Blessed Mother, catechetical in nature, and teaches youth practical ways to build up the culture of life,” the website states. The conference is “an opportunity to make new friendships in Christ, to receive the sacraments, to meet and talk to young priests and religious, and to worship, pray, learn, and recreate together.”

banner currently displaying on the Ignite Your Torch website states that “because of circumstances beyond our control,” the conference, originally scheduled for July, had been canceled and that “anyone who already paid their registration fees will be fully refunded.” (The banner has appeared on the website since at least March, long before NBC Bay Area’s story was published.)

Catholics United for Life is not to be confused with Americans United for Life, a national pro-life organization based in Washington, D.C.

The Archdiocese of Louisville listed Catholics United for Life in its official directory as recently as June; the listing has since been removed. The Archdiocese of Louisville did not respond to CNA’s request for further information.


Jonah McKeown is a staff writer and podcast producer for Catholic News Agency. He holds a Master’s Degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and has worked as a writer, as a producer for public radio, and as a videographer. He is based in St. Louis.


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