RICHMOND — The radical-traditionalist Catholic group the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary is now under sanction from the Roman Catholic Church for failing to follow Catholic teaching, according to documents released Monday.
The sanctions — which range from a ban on routine Catholic sacraments at their Richmond compound to a revision of IRS documents that describe them as Catholic — could be ratcheted up if the group does not comply with orders by church leaders, especially orders to stop preaching the doctrine that only Catholics go to heaven.
They must also stop describing themselves or presenting their teachings as Catholic, something the Vatican ordered them to do two years ago.
“They regularly use semantics to mislead people,” said Rev. Georges de Laire, the vicar for canonical affairs for the Diocese of Manchester.
The sanctions follow a report that an adult woman is being held against her will at the compound in Richmond, a town on the Massachusetts border south of Keene.
De Laire said the woman, who is in her early 20s, has taken supposed vows to eventually become a nun. Her out-of-state family, who are devout Catholics, contacted the diocese to report their daughter had joined the Slaves.
When the FBI interviewed the woman in August, she told them she is there of her own accord, and the FBI could do nothing more, de Laire said. The FBI would not comment.
Louis Villarrubia, who presents himself at Brother Andre Marie, the leader of the Richmond group, said his group was cleared by the investigation, which was sparked when someone lied about the Slaves.
“There isn’t anyone here held against their will,” Villarrubia said.
On Monday, Villarrubia said he had not yet seen the document detailing the sanctions and had no comment. Villarrubia hung up during a phone interview.
Richmond Selectman Doug Bersaw, a member of the Slaves who is known as Brother Anthony Mary, did not respond to requests for comment.
The Slaves are being sanctioned by the church for their stance on the Catholic teaching that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church. The Slaves hold to a strict interpretation of that teaching, while the Vatican holds a more nuanced view.
In recent years, Manchester Bishop Peter Libasci has allowed a priest in good standing from another diocese to minister to the Slaves and their congregation, celebrating Mass in the traditional Latin rite, and administering other Catholic sacraments. According to a statement released Monday by the Diocese, the Slaves have used that allowance to imply they were an approved Catholic organization.
“They have never been recognized, and they have never been an official Catholic organization,” de Laire said. The diocese has always considered the Slaves as individual Catholics, and not its own congregation, he said.
The sanctions will remain in place until midnight on June 30. It is hoped the group will come back into compliance with church teaching, de Laire said. If not, he said, there could be more severe consequences for the group.
Such sanctions would be arranged by Libasci and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. De Laire did not want to speculate on whether that would involve excommunication.
“The purpose of the church is to lead people to the means of salvation, not to kick people out,” he said.
The group also operates a number of websites, and publishes magazines and produces radio programs to push their version of Catholicism. All of that needs to stop for the group to come into compliance, the diocese said.
The Slaves have also been pegged as a hate group in recent years by the left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center for statements members have made about Jewish people and homosexuals.
“I’m really proud of the Catholic Church’s decision here,” said Heidi Beirch of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “They’ve denounced them for years over their anti-semitism.”
In 2017, Villarrubia “categorically” rejected being labeled as a hate group.
The group, which moved in the 1980s to Richmond, a town of 1,155 according to the 2010 Census. It developed a compound that includes living quarters for monks and sisters, a chapel, and a school. De Laire said about four brothers and eight sisters live there, as well as couples and families. Fewer than 30 children attend an on-site school.
All of the organizations affiliated with this group are now under orders from the Vatican to stop calling themselves Catholic, and no sacraments are permitted on site, except for extreme emergencies.
“Catholics are not permitted, under any circumstances, to receive the sacraments of the church at the Saint Benedict Center, and its associated locations, nor should they participate in any activity provided by this group or school,” a statement released Monday by the diocese says.
Letters are going out to surrounding parishes to inform Catholics about the status change. For Slaves who want to attend a Mass, the diocese is instituting a sanctioned Latin Mass for people to attend at St. Stanislaus Parish in Winchester.
As of Tuesday, however, the Slaves were still posting Mass times on their website.