Catholic-founded Colorado charity sues Order of Malta groups, alleging defamation — By: Catholic News Agency

The flag of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. / Credit: AM113/Shutterstock

CNA Staff, Jan 26, 2024 / 16:00 pm (CNA).

A Catholic-founded charitable organization based in suburban Denver has filed a federal lawsuit against several entities associated with the Order of Malta, claiming that a person associated with the order has “nearly destroyed” the group’s mission through “intentional, reckless, and false statements.”

Avodah Farms, a nonprofit organization founded to support victims of sex trafficking, filed the lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, naming as plaintiffs several U.S.-based entities associated with the Order of Malta, a millennia-old Catholic religious order and medical aid organization. 

Also named is Deborah O’Hara-Rusckowski, a delegate for the Order of Malta at the United Nations and an expert on human trafficking. 

Avodah Farms alleges in its lawsuit that O’Hara-Rusckowski used “her influential position with the Catholic community” to spread information that Avodah was “stealing” and “misappropriating” donor funds. Avodah says this led to a loss of reputation and donations as well as a 2023 disavowal of the group by the local Archdiocese of Denver. 

“As a result of defendants’ false statements to the Archdiocese of Denver, representatives of the archdiocese utilized local law enforcement to induce the removal of several religious sisters who were living on Avodah property in Denver, Colorado, thereby disrupting Avodah’s programming, services, and mission for survivors on the Denver campus,” the group alleges. 

Keenan Fitzpatrick and his wife, Brianna, founded Avodah Farms in 2020 in Englewood, Colorado. The organization says it partners with communities of religious sisters worldwide to bring them to its campus and train them to care for survivors of sexual trafficking and exploitation. 

O’Hara-Rusckowski, a former critical-care nurse, co-founded Global Strategic Operatives for the Eradication of Human Trafficking (GSO) in 2018, an organization that conducts training for health care and other frontline entities, such as airlines and the service industry, on how to identify sex trafficking survivors and take appropriate actions.

O’Hara-Rusckowski “served on the boards of directors for one or more” of the Malta groups named in the lawsuit, the suit alleges. The Malta groups, through O’Hara-Rusckowski, partnered with Avodah to connect the group to “donors, partner organizations, and other like-minded charitable organizations,” the suit says. 

One of the projects facilitated by the Malta groups, the filing says, was the renovation of a former Catholic rectory in Lowell, Massachusetts, into a “safe housing for survivors, their children, and religious sisters who had contracted with Avodah to care for the survivors.” 

Avodah says it purchased the property and that one or more of the Malta entities donated a total of half a million dollars to support the Boston-area project, with another Catholic entity “affiliated with the Malta defendants” donating a further $250,000. 

During renovations of the Lowell property, Avodah alleges, O’Hara-Rusckowski and the Malta defendants “grew impatient with delays attributable to supply chain issues and labor shortages.”

According to the suit, the defendants moved to “illegally force the plaintiffs to abandon the project so defendants could implement their new vision.” Avodah says it was forced to transfer ownership of the property to the defendants “under extreme duress” and that they returned all unused funds. 

The home for survivors of sex trafficking in Lowell, renamed the O’Connell House, ultimately opened in September 2023, apparently without any further involvement from Avodah.

Following the dust-up over the donations and the renovation, O’Hara-Rusckowski allegedly told other people that Avodah had misappropriated and “stolen” funds, the suit alleges.

O’Hara-Rusckowski’s alleged statements “interfered with Avodah’s nonprofit work by causing the religious sisters to be erroneously concerned about the status of their work visas and to erroneously believe their work visas were in jeopardy.” In addition, the situation led “several religious sister organizations to terminate their employment agreements with Avodah.”

The suit alleges that the group lost out on “millions of dollars in withdrawn donations and fundraising for projects intending to benefit Avodah.”

CNA attempted to contact O’Hara-Rusckowski for comment but did not receive a reply by publication time. 

‘Deception and excuses’

In a Feb. 3, 2023, letter, Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver noted that Avodah’s status as a Catholic organization had been revoked the previous August following “a review of the operations and structure” by Denver’s vicar general, Father Randy Dollins. 

In his February letter, Aquila said Avodah had sought to change Dollins’ initial decision and that discussions were held with Avodah’s leaders to discuss structural changes. 

“Dialogue continued in a positive direction until the end of January 2023, when my staff began receiving complaints from the various groups of religious sisters that Avodah has trained and oversees in several cities,” Aquila continued. 

“After inquiries by my staff, we learned that these complaints are not isolated but systemic. Moreover, when Avodah was confronted with these issues, my staff was met with deception and excuses. As a result of similar problems, two prominent Catholic ministries dedicated to helping sex-trafficking victims have also cut ties with Avodah.”

Concluding his letter, Aquila announced he had decided “that the Catholic status of Avodah will not be restored and that further discussions will not be entertained.”

“It saddens me to inform you of this, since the need for faith-filled ministries that help sex-trafficking victims is great,” the archbishop wrote. 

“I am making this news public so as to prevent the spread of rumors and to ensure that it is known that the sisters who work with Avodah are without blame in this situation.”

CNA reached out to the Archdiocese of Denver for additional comment Thursday but did not hear back by publication time. 

In a Feb. 13, 2023, response to Aquila’s letter, Avodah’s board of directors stated that “our review of information gained in conversations and internal records in no way aligns with the statements made by the archdiocese.” 

“Our primary goal continues to be the Christ-centered care of the women and children we serve. As we have never been formally affiliated with the Archdiocese of Denver, this decision does not change the nature of our partnership with the religious sisters and does not affect our commitment to following the teachings of the Catholic Church in all we do,” the group wrote.

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