|Disgraced Priest Finds Home in Secretive Sect
Molestation Allegations Follow Ex-Texan
By Evan Moore
The Houston Chronicle
October 26, 2003
San Isidro de Grecia, Costa Rica - It's a twisted trail that leads from Texas to this Central American village, and along it stretches the strange and disturbing odyssey of Father Alfredo Prado.
Prado's path is an errant one. Stripped of his priestly authority by the Oblate Fathers in Texas under accusations of sexually molesting children - which the 73-year-old cleric vehemently denies - Prado has now become a fugitive from his order and the chief celebrant for a reputedly violent doomsday cult in Costa Rica.
Prado is now an embarrassment to the Oblate Fathers in the United States and an annoyance to church and government officials in Costa Rica. Since his arrival in Costa Rica in January, his presence has managed to pit an international child welfare organization against the Catholic Church, the Catholic Church against the cult and the cult against just about everyone.
At first glance, Alfredo Prado is anything but imposing. Short, stocky, aging, he regards his visitors with what appears to be a startled glare, until it becomes clear that the gaze is the result of a form of partial blindness known as macular degeneration.
Seated in his quarters at the back of the "sanctuary" in San Isidro de Grecia, clothed in black vestments, Prado gives every appearance of being what he claims he is - a priest.
Only one element seems askew: Prado's new home is a cult compound, an elongated strip of several acres on which a large house and several outbuildings house a handful of adults and eight or 10 teenage boys.
"I'm here because my Blessed Mother asked me to come," Prado said, referring to the Virgin Mary.
"She chose me to come here, and I'm honored."
More than 30 years ago, he considered himself honored to serve as pastor of St. Timothy's Catholic Church in San Antonio, where he was known as a talented, charismatic cleric, a man with a doctorate in psychology, a priest who sang, danced and did magic tricks for children.
Finding his 'calling' in Costa Rica
That was long before the Oblate Fatherhood stripped him of his clerical authority in 1991, ostensibly for theological differences, but, according to Prado, accompanied by accusations of child molestation. It was long before he was sent to a church pedophile treatment center in New Mexico in 1991, long before he defied the church's orders to enter a retirement home in Missouri last year and long before he found his "calling" more than 1,600 miles from St. Timothy's, in Costa Rica.
Now, Prado has found a home in this land of contradictions, a land in which Costa Ricans legitimately boast of magnificent vistas, then obscure those views with massive security walls. Here, the legally blind septuagenarian with a history of heart problems drinks and dances at weddings he performs with no priestly authority.
Here, in the country's Central Valley, deep in the shadow of the Poas Volcano, Prado has found a new home as a "priest" and guest of the Reina y Senora de Todo la Creado (SEE CORRECTION).
That sect, whose name translates to "Queen and Lady of All Creation," was formed as an obscure group in 2000 by a self-styled visionary, Juan Pablo Delgado.
'Messages' from area's most exalted saint
Delgado, a 25-year-old who claims to receive and relay messages from the Virgin Mary, had previously been aligned with a group with a similar name in Heredia, a colonial town just north of of San Jose.
Both groups exalt "the Virgin," a saint who occupies a special position throughout heavily Catholic Central America. That position is even more exalted in Costa Rica, where Mary is the country's patron saint.
Nowhere is that position more evident than in Cartago, Costa Rica's first city, about 15 miles southeast of San Jose. There, in the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles, is a tiny, black stone figure of the Virgin, called "La Negrita."
The figure, almost lost on a vast, ornate altar, is credited with miracles. On Sundays, lines of supplicants extend far beyond the church out onto an adjacent square. Each year on Aug. 2, tens of thousands make a pilgrimage - many of them walking 50 miles or more - to pay respect and pray to the figure.
It was in that social climate that Delgado and the Heredia group's founder, Eugenio Rodriguez, first conducted their weekly sessions with "the Virgin" in the late 1990s. The pair argued in April 2000, however, and Delgado left, borrowing the name to begin his own cult.
Sometimes called "the Virgin cult," Delgado's group developed ties to Texas, specifically to San Antonio and surrounding areas, where several of its members reside. It also has its own Web site, where Delgado's "messages" from "the Virgin" are routinely posted. Sometimes cryptic and vague, they are periodically more secular, referring to current Costa Rican politics and sporting events.
Some deal with economics. With no means of support outside the group, Delgado relies on the generosity of his followers. At the direction of "the Virgin," one donated the grounds and main house for the sanctuary. At her direction, others give money, though exact amounts are unknown.
Still other messages are more dramatic. Among them are predictions that Pope John Paul II will soon be assassinated and that the world will end in the final days of December.
"We think this group is dangerous," said Bruce Harris, director of Casa Alianza, an international child welfare organization. "We've had several reports that children are being sexually abused there. Initially, there were several boys who told others that they were being molested, but we've never been able to get them off the grounds to talk to them."
Secretive and defensive, Delgado refuses interviews. Several teenage boys working on the grounds either refused to speak or nervously declined, saying they did not have "permission."
The exact size of the group's membership is unknown, although it is elite. Members are known to include lawyers, physicians, engineers, teachers and now, Prado.
But, with Prado's arrival, it is no longer obscure. The priest's residency has brought scrutiny on the group.
A San Antonio woman, a former parishioner of Prado's who has since joined the cult, enlisted Prado in January to perform weddings, hear confessions and preside over funerals. Prado, who already was at odds with his order, said he readily accepted.
"I never had a moment of doubt, no skepticism," Prado said. "The Blessed Mother decreed that I was already separated from the Oblates, that they had no authority over me.
"After the way the Oblates treated me . . . they accused me of raping boys. Terrible, degrading accusations.
"I never raped anyone in my life."
Accusations of rape in Texas in the 1960s
Ricardo Salinas, however, has said that Prado raped him in the 1960s, when he was 14 and Prado was his priest.
Salinas, 50, said the assault occurred in San Antonio in 1967, when he went to Prado seeking advice about his relationship with his father.
"My father physically brutalized me as far back as I can remember," Salinas said. "I liked Father Prado. I thought he was a safe haven for me.
"One evening, after a particularly harsh argument with my father, I went to the church to talk to Father Prado. He invited me into his private rooms and gave me a large tumbler of brandy and told me to drink it."
Later, when he was intoxicated, Salinas said, Prado sexually assaulted him.
"I remember him whispering, 'Sssh, sssh. This will be our secret.' "
The following day, Salinas said, he told his mother about the assault, but she did not believe him.
"She told me, 'Priests never do such things,' " Salinas said.
In June 2002, Salinas wrote the archdiocese in San Antonio, seeking information about Prado. The answer came from Father Patrick Guidon, director of the Oblates there.
"I want to express my sincere regrets for whatever inappropriate conduct happened to you," Guidon wrote. "I apologize sincerely for any responsibility the Oblate community bears for the pain you have suffered . . .
"You asked if Alfredo Prado is still alive. . . . He is now in retirement and is in poor health; he is legally blind and suffers from cardiovascular disease."
Prado said he does not remember Salinas and said he had no sexual contact with him.
Prado, however, acknowledges that he was accused specifically of assaulting Salinas and others.
He also acknowledges that he has performed weddings, heard confessions and performed other priestly functions for Delgado's group. In addition, he said, he continues to do so, which is the basis of a criminal fraud complaint brought by Casa Alianza.
Casa Alianza, the Central American branch of New York's Covenant House, serves as an advocate for children's rights in five countries, including Costa Rica. The group has been active in putting pressure on Central American governments to address violations, including "death squads" in Guatemala, where police were dispatched to shoot roving bands of orphaned children on the streets.
Harris, Casa Alianza's director, became the target of assassination attempts in Guatemala after that incident. His office was sprayed with machine-gun fire, and he was forced to flee the country.
Today, Casa Alianza offices in San Jose are housed behind a massive sliding steel door and protected by an armed guard who screens visitors.
"We're sort of a rabble-rousing group for children," Harris said. "We're not very popular with some of the governments in these countries, but sometimes we're successful in forcing them into action."
Harris said he learned of the "Virgin cult" in early summer, then began receiving more calls about it in August.
Some of those were from Randall Blanco, a North Carolina information technologist whose nephews, ages 16 and 14, were placed in the group after Blanco's brother joined the sect.
Blanco said he visited Costa Rica in late August. When he attempted to see his nephews and inspect their living conditions at the sanctuary, however, Delgado's followers rebuffed him. Later, he said, he was appalled to learn that his older nephew was living in the same quarters with Delgado.
Harris began calling various agencies about the sect in September and said the Oblate Fathers in San Antonio told him that Prado had been disciplined for child molestation.
Concerned that children were being molested in the cult, Harris contacted the church in Costa Rica as well as Rosalia Gil, Costa Rica's minister of youth. In addition, he said, he filed a formal complaint of fraud against Prado and Delgado for falsely representing themselves as priests, a crime in Costa Rica.
Gil, however, said there is little she can do about the cult.
"We will be working on this group, but, immediately, we have more pressing matters," said Gil, whose agency has been involved with the arrest of a child sex-trade ring, another campaign by Harris' organization. "Unfortunately, without definite proof that children are being molested in that group, there's not much we can do.
"We are conducting an investigation, but if they are there with parental consent, we can't just remove them. And we have no evidence at this point that Alfredo Prado or Delgado have molested anyone."
Seeking records from the church
That prompted Casa Alianza to request Prado's records from the Catholic Church, Harris said.
Within weeks, four Costa Rican Catholic bishops denounced the cult.
"But they knew about them before I ever called them," Harris said. "And, if they have information that Prado is a child molester as they said, they should produce it, rather than just disassociate themselves from him and allow him to remain in proximity to several young boys in that group."
Officials of the Oblate Fathers would neither confirm nor deny that they have any proof that Prado is a child molester. Guidon, however, confirmed that Prado was stripped of all authority in the early 1990s, that he was sent to the church pedophile treatment center and that the process to expel him from the order has now begun.
Shortly after the bishops' denunciation, the violence began. Father Benm Gomez, a priest who acts as spokesman for the San Jose Diocese, read the bishops' denouncement on a weekly radio program and began receiving anonymous phone threats.
"They told me I'd better change my attitude about their group, and I tried to explain that I was just relaying an announcement," Gomez said.
"Then, they attacked me."
Anonymous threats, a violent confrontation
On Sept. 3, Gomez said, 10 men came to his home and confronted him at the front door. The men shouted at the priest about "attacking our mother," then began beating him.
Gomez suffered multiple injuries and was hospitalized for several days. Now recovered, he said he is wary about venturing onto the street.
"This group is dangerous," he said. "I'm afraid when I go to my office now, when I leave my house."
Others who have left or opposed the cult have reported threats as well. Neighbors of the group regard it with little sympathy. Residents of San Isidro de Grecia have brought a petition with 139 signatures, demanding that Delgado and his group leave the little community.
"This group can bring us nothing but trouble," said Roberto Picado Gonzalez, a welder who worked at the compound before he knew what Delgado was building.
"He (Delgado) has nothing but contempt for his followers," Gonzalez said. "When I was working there, I saw a crudely done painting of Jesus and I mentioned that it wasn't good enough for a church.
"He (Delgado) just laughed and said, 'Don't worry. It's good enough for the fools who will come here.' "
Other neighbors did not wish to identify themselves, although Alvaro Zamora spoke in detail of his dealings with Delgado.
Zamora, whose property abuts the sanctuary in San Isidro de Grecia, said he first lost his wife, then his children, his bulls, his dogs and finally his home to the cult.
"My wife believed in this Pablo," said Zamora, 48. "About a year ago, she began telling me I was a 'witch' because I didn't agree.
"Eventually, Pablo told her to take my two bulls and sell them. Then he told her to kill my two Rottweiler dogs, and she poisoned them. Finally, she and my twin boys (ages 17) began spending all their time at the sanctuary with my 5-year-old daughter.
"By then, I was sleeping in a separate room with a lock on the inside of the door because I was afraid my wife might kill me in my sleep. Now, we're divorced and I live with my parents."
A comfortable new life, a 'frightening' message
Now, Prado resides in a comfortable if Spartan room at the back of the sanctuary, unconcerned that the Oblates have started the process to expel him from the order. He is fed, clothed and cared for by the cult and, in turn, serves as its priest.
"These people do everything for me," he said. "I have nothing. The Oblates cut me off and Ihaven't gotten my pension, but these people clothe me, feed me and house me.
"No one is being molested here.
"The Virgin is happy about my priesthood. She could read my heart that I would live here and stay here the rest of my life."
Delgado, who announced that "the Virgin" would not speak during October, left the compound this month and has not been seen. Before departing, however, he announced that "the Virgin" had directed all members with young boys to consider placing their sons with the group, because "young blood" is needed.
"We've seen that message," Harris said. "That's frightening, isn't it?"
CORRECTION-DATE: November 19, 2003
CORRECTION: This story misidentified the Spanish name of a religious group. The group's name is the "Reina y Senora de Todo lo Creado."
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