Sunday Times January 3, 2016
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Spain’s Palmarian Church with its self-appointed pope might seem like a joke but the death of a lonely spinster in Wexford shows it has a shadowy side for many in Ireland, writes Pavel Barter
Pope Gregory XVII flung open the doors and stormed into the church in Alba de Tormes, near Salamanca in Spain. Gregory marched up the aisle, while his accompanying bishops denounced women in the congregation for wearing trousers. Taking his place at the pulpit, he demanded that everyone renounce the heretic
John Paul II. “I am the one true pope,” he declared. But instead of falling to their knees, the worshippers ran off to get help.
According to a report in El Pais on May 18, 1982, the National Guard eventually
arrived and had to escort the renegade priests to safety, but not before the villagers pushed Gregory’s car into a river. It’s no wonder a former Irish member of the Palmarian church compares the organisation’s hierarchy to the Keystone Kops, but behind the often buffoonish behaviour of this splinter Catholic group lurks a more sinister tale.
“The Palmarians belong to the Noah’s Ark school of thought: they are the ones who
will be saved in the end. They totally renounce the outside world,” said Magnus Lundberg of Uppsala University in Sweden, author of a research paper on the church. Other critics suggest that church members are more likely to encounter isolation and abandonment than salvation.
In the Faythe area of Wexford town, Paddy Mulligan runs a funeral business near the home of Bridget Crosbie, an 84-year-old woman who lay dead for two months before
being discovered last November. “She wouldn’t answer the door to anybody,” said Mulligan. “She wouldn’t let her own family in. Religion had taken over and prevented
her from doing that.”
When Maria Hall read Crosbie’s story, she was saddened but not surprised. “I could see this having been my parents if I hadn’t got them out of the church,” said Hall, a New Zealander and author of Reparation: A Spiritual Journey, a memoir about being a Palmarian nun from 1982 to 1990. “I could see one of my parents dying and the other dying alone, and nobody in the family knowing.”
Other Irish families are dealing with similar concerns. Fiona (not her real name),
whose three siblings are members of the church, had not spoken to her brother for 11
years when she encountered him in Sandymount in 2014. “I drove up beside him with the passenger window rolled down and said, ‘It’s lovely to see you.’ He just turned on his heel and went in the opposite direction.”
Isolation is a core tenet of the church’s philosophy. “Look, dearest children,” reads one pamphlet, “owing to Palmarian disciplinary norms, so as not to be contaminated by the world, you find yourselves doing without many things, including relatives and friends to live practically alone.”
Fiona is “absolutely certain” that some Irish Palmarians have given money and inheritances to the church. “My family home will be left to Palmar, without doubt,” she said. A relative of Bridget Crosbie declined to comment on what would become of her Wexford home.
The Palmarian church operates behind a veil of secrecy. Former members believe it has about 300 members in Ireland and has been directed by Fr Geronsius, a Canadian missionary. In 1997, the group bought a property on Haddon Road, Clontarf, under the name of Manuel Corral, who “succeeded” Gregory XVII as Pope Peter II (2005-11). The property was sold last year, having been offered for €1.4m. David, a former member, believes that they have relocated to Lusk, Co. Dublin.
The church in Spain did not respond to a Sunday Times request for an interview, but, there was a time when Palmarians including relatives and friends opened their doors to the world.
It all began on March 30, that some Irish Palmarians 1968, when four girls claimed to have witnessed an apparitions of a “very beautiful lady” in a field near Palmar de
Troya, a town in Spanish Andalusia. Later that year Clemente Dominguez y
Gomez, an accountant, and Manuel Alonso Corral, his lawyer, arrived at the site.
According to Palmarian hagiographies, Dominguez began to have ecstatic experiences. Corral would record his friend’s heavenly communications for the benefit of pilgrims. In 1970, Dominguez was said to have received stigmata,
although some witnesses accused him of slicing his palms with glass.
There was Irish involvement from the earliest days of the church, according to
Lundberg. “There were messages published in English in 1970 destined
for an Irish readership. I have heard testimonies from the beginning of the 1970s of
many Irish pilgrims at Palmar de Troya. From around 1974, Palmarian messages were
about 300 members in Ireland being published in Northern Ireland.”
In 1974, Dominguez and Corral purchased the 15,000 sq metre field, building an elaborate shrine, and putting a wall around the site. They recruited Ngo Dinh Thuc, an elderly Vietnamese archbishop, to ordain them as bishops. The Vatican was not amused. From 1970, the archbishop of Seville denounced the apparitions. In 1975, the
papal nuncio in Spain excommunicated everyone involved in the consecrations. When the real Pope Paul VI died in 1978, Dominguez claimed he had received a heavenly instruction to transfer the Holy See from Rome to Palmar de Troya. The former accountant, who had been blinded two years previously in a car accident, appointed himself Gregory XVII.
“The Palmarian church is not a sect of Catholicism, it claims to be Catholicism,” said
Mike Garde of Dialogue Ireland,an anti-cult organisation. “[In their minds] the Roman Catholic Church is a heresy and they are the true church.” Between 1976 and 1978, 90 bishops were consecrated within the church. “Irish people made up the greatest single group,” said Lundberg. “They were an international bunch, but 25% were Irish, while only 20% were Spanish.” According to Maria Hall, the majority of nuns were Irish. Hall said she and her colleagues lived in Seville, rising at 6.40am, working, praying and travelling 45km to Palmar de Troya every day, before going
to bed at 2.30am. “We went for weeks at a time on dried bread, and an apple for
breakfast and dinner,” said Hall. “We were forced to pray with our arms extended, as
though on the cross, during all night vigils. The only time our arms came down was during benediction. Nobody was beating us, but if that’s not physical abuse I don’t know what is.” While the nuns lived a frugal existence, money flooded into the church from wealthy donors. A basilica was constructed at the apparition site,
with nine towers. Some Spanish news reports suggested Dominguez and his
confidants were living it up on donations.
The “pope” made frequent visits to Ireland to hold masses in hotel function rooms. However, according to Lundberg, he didn’t feel particularly welcome here. The antipathy is traced back to a trip in the mid1980s when Gregory XVII was
not greeted upon arrival at Dublin airport due to confusion over times. In November 2000, the pope expelled 18 bishops and seven nuns, accusing them of plotting against him. Madre Maria Goretti, an Irish sister who was expelled, left the order to set up
her own group in Granada. Hall had departed a decade previously after having a nervous breakdown. “I was hallucinating. I got to the point where I thought Pope Gregory could read my mind, mainly because I was so isolated,” she said. After Dominguez died in 2005 and passed the papacy to Corral, the church’s rules
became stricter. Since then bans have been introduced on everything from organ transplants to Christmas trees. Palmerian material states that Aids is a “plague permitted by God”, condoms are “accursed”, while painting, sculpture and music are an “aberration”.
Sergio Maria, aka Pope Gregory XVIII, pontiff since Corral’s death in 2011, is said to
be a former officer in the Spanish army: a good fit for the church’s militaristic teachings. Former members speak of armed guards patrolling the inner walls of the basilica in Palmar de Troya. “They have permission from the Spanish authorities to arm the guards,” said Hall. “There were apparently some incidents of
vandalism, intimidation, and harassment of the pilgrims.” The church’s tightening
rules and self-imposed isolation have resulted in a decline in membership. Between 1976 and 2005, more than 192 Palmarian bishops were consecrated.
About 133 have since left, been expelled or died. Nevertheless the church has
continued to inherit large sums from donors. In 2003, the Palmarians sold their buildings in Seville for €3.5m. In 2014, 36 years after construction began,
work on the basilica was completed. “Finances have improved considerably under
the third Palmarian pontificate,” said Lundberg. Maria Hall is relieved to have
left. “I think they’re crazy, totally misguided,” she said. “They’re not being directed by God. I don’t think for a second that their priests or nuns have any role at all on the planet. It’s very sad. It is a cult.”
Membership may be falling, but stories of people affected by the Palmarian church can be found throughout Ireland: a father whose children refuse to speak to him; parents who shun their children; an airport baggage handler trying to make sense of his years as a former Palmarian bishop; the curtains drawn across a terraced house in Wexford town. “It’s a tragedy for such a lovely woman,” said Paddy Mulligan, looking out his office window at Crosbie’s empty home. “She never did hurt nor
harm to anybody.”
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