Catholic news site Church Militant agrees to pay $500k in defamation case and is expected to close

FILE - Michael Voris, founder of Church Militant, speaks during a rally, Nov. 16, 2021, in Baltimore. Church Militant, a far-right, unofficial Catholic media website, has agreed to pay $500,000 to a New Hampshire priest who sued for defamation over a 2019 article that it now disavows. The website also is planning to shut down soon, the priest's attorney says. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

FILE – Michael Voris, founder of Church Militant, speaks during a rally, Nov. 16, 2021, in Baltimore. Church Militant, a far-right, unofficial Catholic media website, has agreed to pay $500,000 to a New Hampshire priest who sued for defamation over a 2019 article that it now disavows. The website also is planning to shut down soon, the priest’s attorney says. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

A far-right, unofficial Catholic media website has agreed to pay $500,000 to a New Hampshire priest who sued for defamation over a 2019 article that it now disavows. The website also is planning to shut down soon, the priest’s attorney says.

The apology by Church Militant came after the organization agreed last week to a federal court judgment in favor of the Rev. Georges de Laire, an official with the Diocese of Manchester. This legal setback comes just months after its founder’s resignation over a breach of its morality clause.

“As part of the parties’ resolution, Church Militant has represented that it will be shutting down at the end of April,” attorney Howard Cooper of the Boston law firm Todd & Weld, which represented de Laire, said via email.

St. Michael’s Media, the parent firm for the Michigan-based news site, did not immediately confirm the shutdown plan to The Associated Press, and a phone message to its attorneys was not immediately returned. But the Church Militant website said it was closing its online store and having a “Lenten Liquidation Sale” of crucifixes, statues, books and other items.

Church Militant and its sleek newscasts drew a loyal following for years with a mix of fiercely right-wing politics and radically conservative Catholicism in which many of America’s bishops were viewed with suspicion and disgust. It “is not recognized as a Church apostolate” and lacks authorization to promote itself as Catholic, according to the Archdiocese of Detroit, in whose territory it is based.

The legal settlement follows the November announcement that Michael Voris, who founded St. Michael’s Media and its media outlet, was stepping down as president. The organization said it accepted his resignation due to his “breaching the Church Militant morality clause,” without providing details.

De Laire also sued Voris individually. The court set an April 15 trial date, but Voris asked for an extension for medical reasons.

The 2019 Church Militant article, titled “NH Vicar Changes Dogma Into Heresy,” cast aspersions on de Laire’s emotional state, said he had “botched” cases he had handled and was known as a “troublemaker” in the Vatican — all claims the site now acknowledges were not properly vetted.

De Laire is the judicial vicar of the Manchester Diocese.

At the time, the article was posted anonymously. Church Militant now acknowledges that it was written by Marc Balestrieri, a canon lawyer, and said it could not substantiate the claims in the article. Church Militant stated that Balestrieri didn’t disclose his role in a dispute with the diocese, “which would have raised questions about the motive” for the article.

St. Michael’s Media “sincerely apologizes for their part in any distress or damage they may have caused Father de Laire,” it said Thursday on its website.

Although St. Michael’s Media didn’t identify the specific case, Todd & Weld’s statement said Balestrieri was representing a New Hampshire group, the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Saint Benedict Center. The Vatican said the group was teaching outside of acceptable church doctrine, and de Laire followed with a decree in 2019 prohibiting the group from presenting itself as Roman Catholic or purporting to hold Roman Catholic services on its property.

Balestrieri criticized Church Militant for agreeing to the settlement, saying in an email he had been “conditionally willing” to testify in the case. He asserted that he is being made the scapegoat when he was actually acting as a whistleblower. He criticized St. Michael’s Media for accepting the judgment. He said he’s willing to testify when Voris’s case comes to trial.

De Laire also sued Balestrieri individually. According to the case docket in the U.S. District Court of New Hampshire, the court clerk issued a default judgment against Balestrieri in 2022 after he “failed to respond” to the case. Balestrieri said by email he had received no “effective communication” from the court before then.

Church Militant has long had a controversial role in the church, even with its unofficial status.

Around the time Voris stepped down, articles on the site featured a climate crisis denier, criticized efforts at LGBTQ+ inclusion and gave a platform to Bishop Joseph Strickland — recently ousted from his Texas diocese by Pope Francis after his increasingly severe criticisms of the pontiff.

In 2016, Voris acknowledged that when he was younger, he had for years been involved in “live-in relationships with homosexual men” and multiple other sexual relationships with men and women, actions he later abhorred as “extremely sinful.”

In 2021, Voris’ group was initially denied permission to rally outside a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore, with city officials saying it posed a threat to public safety in part because they said the site “promoted and exalted” the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Voris claimed the city wrongly blocked the event because it disapproved of the group’s message, and a federal appeals court overturned the city’s decision.

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