Booking religious tours in bad faith

The attorney general has sued CPC Tours Inc., to recover more than $131,000 for dozens of people nationwide. In addition to restitution, the state wants CPC Tours Inc. to stop doing business in Georgia and pay penalties for breaking state laws that are supposed to protect consumers from deceptive business practices.

The attorney general is also going after the company’s operator, Cobb County resident Manfred W. Reinhard.

“We would not have brought this case if we didn’t feel there were grounds for moving forward and taking the actions we have,” said Russ Willard, spokesman for the attorney general’s office.

CPC Tours Inc., which does business as Catholic Pilgrimage Center, sells travel packages to Rome, Jerusalem, Egypt and other sites around the world that are significant to the Roman Catholic Church. CPC’s Web site includes a picture of Pope Benedict XVI amid its promotions.

The company is not affiliated with the Catholic church, according to a spokeswoman with the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, which has tried unsuccessfully to contact CPC.

The attorney general’s office weighed in after the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs investigated complaints about the company from a former worker and more than 40 consumers. The consumer affairs office tried unsuccessfully to reach Reinhard numerous times before turning the case over to the attorney general.

“The majority of the complaints involve cancellations or changes in the destination for the tour, the defendant’s failure to pay refunds for cancelled tours and the defendant’s failure to provide services as represented,” according to the suit filed Oct. 29 in Cobb County Superior Court.

The suit goes on to say the company promised to fully refund people if tours were canceled and alternative tour dates weren’t convenient.

“Defendants have cancelled a number of pilgrimage tours, but despite numerous requests, many consumers have not received a refund,” the suit noted.

The attorney general’s office also has a separate companion suit in Cobb Superior Court against the company because it “ignored investigative demands” from the consumer affairs office, Willard said.

Waiting on a refund

Jacksonville resident Ann Hawthorne is one of the people still waiting on a refund. She said she and her 84-year-old aunt booked a trip last year to tour five major shrines throughout Europe. They sent in nearly $5,000 for the trip that was supposed to take place last month. Hawthorne learned the trip had been cancelled several days before they were supposed to go.

“It was absolutely horrible,” said Hawthorne, who closed her counseling practice — her sole source of income — for the 10-day trip. “The trip wasn’t a vacation. I’ve had vacations. It was supposed to be a healing [trip].”

Hawthorne, a devout Catholic, suffers from back pain as a result of a car accident and believed the faith-based trip to Lourdes, France, and other Catholic shrines would be beneficial. Many Catholics believe pilgrimages to shrines and other holy places provide spiritual renewal and physical healing.

A woman who said she books tours for Catholic Pilgrimage Center said last week that Hawthorne and her aunt would get a refund.

“I thought they sent the money back,” said the woman, who identified herself as Pat Montana. She said she has worked for the company for about 18 months and booked the trip for Hawthorne and her aunt. “We [the reservations department] don’t have anything to do with the money,” she said. “They’ll get their refund back. I don’t know when the turnaround time is on that.”

Reinhard returned a call Friday to the AJC but did not comment for the story except to say he was out of town and would look into the matter when he returned.

As of Friday, Hawthorne had not received a refund.

The Atlanta office of the Better Business Bureau has received 29 complaints against the company during the last three years, according to spokesman Fred Elsberry. The local office said the company ignored its requests to respond to complaints. The Atlanta office began forwarding the complaints to the Miami Better Business Bureau in August, at Miami’s request, Elsberry said. While it has an Atlanta address, Catholic Pilgrimage also does business in Fort Lauderdale, Elsberry said.

Nationally, there have been about three dozen complaints against the company, Elsberry said, and the company has responded to only two of them. The Better Business Bureau has given the company an “F” rating, Elsberry said. The bureau instituted the rating system in January of this year, too late for Hawthorne’s inquiry.

CPC Tours was incorporated in Georgia in June 2008, according to the Secretary of State’s office. Reinhard is the only company officer listed in the filing.

Georgia isn’t the first state where Reinhard has run into trouble for selling pilgrimage tours. The California attorney general’s office, for instance, sued Reinhard and a similar company he was operating at the time called Modern Pilgrimages and won a $650,000 judgment. A records check turned up several legal disputes over Reinhard’s business dealings during the last decade.

Unfortunately, a bad economy tends to prompt more unsavory business practices, consumer advocates say.

“In this economy ... consumer complaints have gone up,” said Shawn Conroy, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs. “We’re also seeing behavior that you might not see in normal times.”

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