News & Commentary

Church Militant to shut down as defamation saga ignited by a radical traditionalist sect concludes

(OSV News) — Trapped in a vortex of scandal, the Ferndale, Michigan-based Church Militant is shutting down, the concluding chapter for the online news outlet thanks to a legal drama set in motion by a fringe traditionalist group and its canon lawyer, who is accused of defaming a New Hampshire priest on the opposite side of a canonical dispute.

On Feb. 29, Church Militant and its parent non-profit, St. Michael’s Media, announced a settlement of the defamation lawsuit brought forward by Father Georges de Laire, the judicial vicar for the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire.

Church Militant ended the lawsuit that dragged on for three years in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire in Concord, by apologizing to Father de Laire, retracting the January 2019 article that defamed him as “emotionally unstable” and “incompetent” among other unsubstantiated claims, and paid him $500,000.

The organization told Father de Laire’s lawyers that Church Militant will cease operations at the end of April.

Throughout the trial, Father de Laire has declined to comment, and he did not immediately respond to OSV News’ request for comment March 1.

The settlement and shutdown notice comes months after Church Militant and St. Michael’s Media founder Michael Voris was ousted in November over allegations of breaching the organization’s morality clause.

However, Voris is not part of the defamation settlement. According to court sources, Voris’ related trial is scheduled for mid-April and he is representing himself.

As part of the settlement, Church Militant acknowledged it did not have any credible sources to substantiate the anonymously written Jan. 17, 2019, article about Father de Laire titled “NH Vicar Changes Dogma into Heresy.”

Church Militant maintains it was written by Marc Balestrieri. The canon lawyer once represented Voris, but he was representing a radical traditionalist group subject to canonical penalties from the Manchester Diocese that Father de Laire promulgated at the time the defamatory article was written and published.

“SMM and Church Militant regret that the article was not properly vetted. It was later revealed that Mr. Balestrieri could not substantiate his claims regarding Father de Laire with any credible sources,” St. Michael’s Media said in a statement posted to Church Militant’s site. “Further, Mr. Balestrieri did not disclose to SMM his active involvement in a canonical dispute in which he was representing a client and Father de Laire was representing the Church at the time he wrote the article, which would have raised questions about the motive behind the anonymous allegations in the article prior to its publication.”

Contacted March 1, Balestrieri denied being the author of the defamatory story, casting himself instead as one of the sources for the article about Father de Laire, which he still contends is true.

“On February 20, 2024, I telephoned Saint Michael’s Media’s attorneys, Stephen Martin and Seth Hipple, and spoke at length with them both, informing them — prior to their entering into the agreement for judgment of February 27 on behalf of their clients — that all of the information I provided as a source was true and that there are witnesses, including myself among them, and documentation able to corroborate what Church Militant reported in the article,” he wrote in an email to OSV News.

However, according to St. Michael’s Media’s statement, “Mr. Balestrieri, after being sued, did not defend the lawsuit, leading the Court to enter a default judgment against him. Mr. Balestrieri further failed to attend his duly-noticed and agreed-upon deposition.”

Balestrieri was the canon lawyer representing the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a group which operates the St. Benedict Center in rural Richmond, New Hampshire, and is in conflict with the Catholic Church’s authorities over its ideology regarding salvation. The group has unapproved orders for men and women, operates a school, and publishes various tracts and books.

The New Hampshire Slaves claim their founding to controversial Jesuit Father Leonard Feeney (1897-1978), a Boston priest known for fiery denunciations of church leadership, nearly two decades of excommunication by Pope Pius XII, and virulent antisemitism.

The New Hampshire Slaves broke away from the main group, located in Still River, Massachusetts, in the 1980s during a dispute over an effort to end hostilities with the church and gain recognition by toning down Feeneyite teachings.

For decades, the New Hampshire Slaves taught a rigorist interpretation of Catholicism that condemned Jewish people as part of their adherence to Father Feeney’s personal interpretation of the doctrine “no salvation outside the church.”

The group is currently led by Brother Andre Marie, born Louis Villarubia, and was named in a now-withdrawn FBI field office memo concerned with an intersection between “radical traditionalist Catholics” who reject the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and threats of racially or ethnically motivated violence. The group has rejected the characterization associating it with violence.

Villarubia did not respond to OSV News’ request for comment.

After years of the New Hampshire Slaves refusing to follow guidance from the Manchester Diocese and the Congregation (now Dicastery) for the Doctrine of the Faith on how the Catholic Church understands the doctrine of “no salvation outside the church,” Father de Laire sent Villarubia a formal decree in January 2019, which barred the group from calling itself Catholic, having Mass celebrated in the Slaves’ chapel, and from raising money in the name of any Catholic institution or organization, among other prohibitions.

Within weeks of Father de Laire’s decree, Voris was in New Hampshire to interview Villarubia. Over the next several months Church Militant would publish and air stories casting Father de Laire as ambitious and incompetent, alleging he was known in the Vatican and the diocese as an emotionally unstable bumbler.

However, Voris never tried to contact Father de Laire for an interview before publication. The priest was not media averse; Father de Laire had spoken with other outlets concerning the decree.

Voris did not respond to requests for comment from OSV News.

According to a statement released by Todd & Weld, the firm representing Father de Laire, Balestrieri wrote the article to gain an edge on Father de Laire on behalf of the New Hampshire Slaves, and to help the Slaves score fundraising dollars to cover his fee.

“The defamation was used, apparently, as an attempt to discredit Father de Laire and the Diocese and to raise funds including to pay for Mr. Balestrieri’s services as a canonist,” the Todd & Weld statement reads.

While St. Michael’s Media denied they had any knowledge Balestrieri was representing the Slaves when Voris published the 2019 article, Balestrieri had contributed articles to Church Militant for years under the pseudonym Tom Moore.

Howard Cooper, the lawyer for Father de Laire, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In a brief phone call with OSV News, Balestrieri denied he was trying to gain an advantage on Father de Laire with the article.

Voris and Church Militant published the article anonymously, and hid Balestrieri’s connection to the report for years. When the lawsuit was filed in early 2021, Voris claimed in legal documents he himself was the author in order to conceal Balestrieri.

Balestrieri’s identity as the author came out in discovery in early 2022, setting off panic behind the scenes, according to court records. Voris pressed Balestrieri for details on his sources, while Balestrieri tried to hide from Father de Laire’s lawyers. At one point in June of 2022, Voris used Church Militant funds to give Balestrieri an interest-free $65,000 loan.

Lawyers for de Laire had Balestrieri added as a co-defendant in June 2022, but the canon lawyer dodged process servers as part of his legal strategy, according to text messages released during the litigation. This resulted in Balestrieri being found liable by default in the lawsuit.

In the spring of 2023, Balestrieri started claiming he was not the author of the article, and denied he wrote it during a conversation with Villarubia, according to deposition transcripts.

Further complicating the case for Voris, Balestrieri changed his mind about going to court and made a surprise appearance at a June 15, 2023, hearing in Concord.

Voris responded by handing over scores of evidence to Father de Laire’s team that linked Balestrieri to the story. Voris also sent Balestrieri a text threatening him if he denied authorship under oath.

“We have all the receipts. You go through with this and we will rain down on you publicly. You are a liar, and a Welch,” Voris texted to Balestrieri on June 15, 2023.

But in linking the story to Balestrieri, Voris also exposed the fact he had been sitting on evidence that was supposed to be turned over through discovery orders. Voris and Church Militant saw three attorneys quit the defense, and Judge Joseph LaPlante threatened financial sanctions if all evidence was not turned over.

With the trial slated for March, Voris on Jan. 31 handed over 17 pages of text messages with Balestrieri. A few days later, Church Militant turned over 30,000 documents.

St. Michael’s Media and Church Militant settlement with Father de Laire was reached a few weeks later.

Late last year, Church Militant sold its only assets, two Ferndale office buildings. The organization is currently advertising a liquidation sale for its online store.

St. Michael’s Media is not shutting down, but it is not yet clear if the organization will launch a new media outlet to replace Church Militant. It’s also unknown if Voris, who was removed from the board of directors in December, will play any role.

By Damien Fisher | OSV News