Priest Faces Questions over How '£350,000 Destined for Lourdes Ended up in His Bank Account'

By Peter Allen
Daily Mail (United Kingdom)
July 2, 2008

The treasurer of the Roman Catholic shrine of Lourdes was yesterday at the centre of a major fraud inquiry.

Father Raymond Zambelli, 65, rector of the site of 66 recognised miracles, has been asked to explain how at least £350,000 raised for the sick and dying ended up in his account.

More than six million pilgrims visit the town in south-west France every year, many of them donating huge amounts of money to its upkeep.

Police confirmed that an inquiry into the ' misappropriation of funds' had been launched, looking at several individuals including a priest.

Under ingestigation: Police found ?350,000 in Father Raymond Zambelli's bank account. The priest is treasurer and rector of Lourdes

Much of the money was raised for the sick and the dying who visit the shrine in the foothills of the Pyrenees in south west France every year because they believe it is a place of miracles.

Father Zambelli, who last night denied all wrong doing, was due to welcome the Pope to Lourdes in September to celebrate its 150th anniversary as a place of Christian pilgrimage.

Instead he will now be asked to explain how at least £350,000 destined for Lourdes came to end up in his personal bank account.

As a priest Father Zambelli's annual salary would be less than £10,000, with his food, accommodation and other living costs all taken care of.

In was in 1858 that schoolgirl Bernadette Soubirous is said to have witnessed apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes.

Now more than six million visitors a year flock to the town, many of them contributing huge amounts of money towards its upkeep.

Thousands of British people are among the pilgrims, many arriving via coach or at the nearby airport of Tarbes.

The authorities were first alerted to 'unusual money movements' at Lourdes by Tracfin, the money-laundering arm of the French finance ministry.

Transactions involving Father Zambelli were picked up on June 5th, and have been tracked every since.

The case was so sensitive, however, that the prosecutor general in the nearby town of Pau wrote to French justice minister Rachida Dati asking for the enquiry to be postponed until after a visit by the Pope in September.

Jean-François Lorans wrote in the leaked note: 'This affair is particularly sensitive because Lourdes is preparing to welcome the Pope, Benedict XVI on September 13th 2008.'

The cathedral at Lourdes: The town has become a centre of pilgrimage since schoolgirl Bernadette Soubirous apparently witnessed apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1858

Mr Lorans added that the 'arrest and questioning of Father Zambelli should not take place until after the Pope's visit to France.'

Visitor numbers to Lourdes are rising each year, especially because of this year's 150th Jubilee Year.

With a population of just 15,000, the town has two and a half times that number of tourist beds - more than anywhere in France except Paris.

Since Bernadette's apparitions - she had 18 in all - more than 200 million pilgrims have made their way to the town, and there have been 66 officially-recognised miracles.

The last miracle, involving a middle-aged Frenchman with multiple sclerosis, was ratified by the Church following medical recommendations in 1999.

Today Father Zambelli said: 'I am innocent, and will clear my name.'

Local police confirmed that a preliminary enquiry into the 'misappropriation of funds' had been launched.

He added: 'A number of people, including a Roman Catholic priest, are being investigated.'

Contact: POCHTA


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