OMAHA, Neb. — For more than two decades, a group of Roman Catholics secluded themselves on a sprawling, wooded compound in the Ponca Hills north of Omaha. They lived as hermits, giving up their families, jobs and possessions to live in poverty and pray for man's sins.
Known as the Intercessors of the Lamb, the band of penniless men and women took prayer requests from around the world and raked in millions of dollars through religious gatherings and the sale of books and tapes by founder Nadine Brown.
But in mid-October, the Archdiocese of Omaha denounced the group, sending a bus to the compound to whisk away 50 or so members to a retreat 70 miles away. Catholics were warned to disregard Brown's teachings and stop funding her group amid claims the group's finances were mismanaged and Brown intimidated its members, who live with few possessions other than the robes she gives them.
The path that led to the archdiocese's serious move to "suppress" the group is disputed. Archdiocese officials said Brown resigned voluntarily after it raised issues with the way the group was being run. Brown claims she was forced out and escorted off the group's property by authorities.
To religious scholars, the dispute typifies the fragile relationships between the mainline church and offshoot groups that take it in uncomfortable directions. The church's split with the Intercessors — known in Catholic circles as "suppression" — is more about control over the group's form and function, the scholars say.
Suppression is typically reserved for floundering parishes and inactive church groups, but is occasionally used to silence wayward organizations.
Lawrence Cunningham, theology professor at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., says that as church-affiliated groups grow in size, Catholic leaders become increasingly concerned that their mission is in keeping with church teachings.
"They're always worried about a group becoming a cult," he says.
Brown, 80, has denied any wrongdoing. Messages left for her at the Intercessors' office have not been returned, and no one else there has made themselves available for comment. Brown lives at the gated compound with 10 or so member who've stayed loyal to her.
Access to the property is restricted, and the rolling landscape and trees make it difficult to see activity there. Several of the buildings have teal and white accents, matching the colors of the Intercessors robes.
Intercessors was registered in Nebraska as a religious nonprofit in 1980, with Brown as its founder. She had left the St. Paul, Minn., sisterhood that's now known as the Contemplatives of the Good Shepherd to form the group, which became affiliated with the Catholic Church in 1992.
Intercessors' 2008 tax return, filed last November, shows the group had almost $4 million in revenue, mostly from its retreats and conferences, and nearly $1.9 million in expenses. Its net assets at the end of 2008 was listed as more than $6 million.
Online records kept by the Douglas County property assessor show the Intercessors owns at least 86 acres in Ponca Hills that have been acquired piecemeal over the years. The records show the group bought or otherwise acquired at least $3.3 million in property since 1993. A few of the smaller properties near the main compound were recently put up for sale.
Former Intercessors board member Bob Schropp, who stepped down about a year ago but has stayed in contact with the group, said there were no financial problems when he left. He said the group didn't have much money for its first 10 or 15 years, then income from Brown's books and tapes started rolling in.
Letters from Brown on the Intercessors website say she's never strayed from the Catholic Church's teachings or been disobedient. She vows in the letters to carry on the Intercessors' prayer mission. A plea for donations is also included.
Brown and her remaining followers have resumed "our mission of contemplative, intercessory and spiritual warfare prayer," she writes.
But religious scholars say it's unlikely the Intercessors will be able to recover.
Nick Cafardi, a dean emeritus and professor at Duquesne University who's an expert in church law, calls archdiocese's actions severe. He says suppression isn't to be taken lightly.
"It is a form of 'death penalty' to an organization," he says.
Tom Kearney, a board member since 1990 who resigned days after the split with the church, said he wasn't aware of any abuse or wrongdoing by Brown, who he's known since the early 1980s.
"I saw so many prayers answered, some I'd even consider miracles," Kearney said.
It appears Intercessors' recent attempt to expand its mission may have led to its fall from grace. Archdiocese spokesman Timothy McNeil says Brown met with Archbishop George J. Lucas when he was appointed last year to discuss the Intercessors' future. Lucas ordered a review of the group, which the archdiocese has said revealed poor leadership, poor financial decisions, disunity within the group and "use of intimidation tactics to secure obedience from members," among other things.
McNeil says Lucas told Brown in September that in order for the group to move forward, it would need new leadership, restructuring and a financial audit. That's when she resigned, McNeil says, but characterized Brown's departure as voluntary and meant to allow Lucas to make needed reforms.
Brown contends in her online letters that she was forced out and was ordered by sheriff's deputies to leave the Intercessors compound for a time.
Soon after her departure, the Intercessors civic board seized financial documents and computers and refused several opportunities to meet with Lucas, McNeil says.
"That was the downward spiral," he says.
McNeil says the Intercessors board showed little regard for the 50 or so members at the compound who were penniless and in need of food and clothes, so the archdiocese took them in.
Attempts to contact those former members have been unsuccessful. McNeil says most have been in religious retreat, and four members have decided to return to their normal lives. There has been no response to e-mails sent to the former members' new address.
Intercessors of the Lamb: http://www.bellwetheromaha.org/
Omaha Archdiocese: http://www.archomaha.org/
Former Intercessors members: http://www.intercessorrelief.com/