Pope Gregorio XVIII – now just plain Ginés Jesús Hernández – is laying low. Once the former spiritual leader of the Palmarian Catholic Church, he is now holed up with his girlfriend Nieves in Spain's Sierra Nevada. And not without reason. Not only has he turned his back on this dubious offshoot of the Roman Catholic Church, whose saints include Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco; he has also decided to bring the organization to its knees with revelations of underhand dealings and tax evasion.
“It’s all a set-up, particularly a financial one,” he declares after 32 years in the sect. “They’re just using the miracle of the Virgin Mary as a front.”
The former pontiff’s revelations have also lifted the lid on an isolated world where children and adults have been brainwashed with manipulative religious texts pronouncing, among other things, the coming of the Antichrist.
But money has been the driving force behind this ultra-conservative religious movement, according to internal documents and personal accounts from bishops and former members, with tax evasion on the millions pouring into their coffers being standard practice.
La Iglesia de El Palmar de Troya was founded in Seville in 1974 after four young schoolgirls swore they had seen a vision of the Virgin Mary. A creed was established that promoted the Roman Catholic Pope Paul VI as a martyr, while subsequent popes from Rome, thanks to more visions, were ‘excommunicated’ and the Holy See transferred to the tiny community of El Palmar de Troya, in Seville province.
The number of followers increased over the next 40 years, with the families of believers having as many as 15 children so as to swell the ranks that, according to Hernández, have come to number 5,000.
But what sets El Palmar de Troya apart from the other 250 sects flourishing on Spanish soil? Mainly its healthy cash flow, thanks to international donations of around €2 million a year from an international following in Latin America, Switzerland and Germany.
“Before they introduced the euro, I saw donations of $250,000 come in month after month from just one person,” says a former Palmarian bishop, Father Guido, who left the sect 15 years ago and is today a businessman who says he prefers to remain anonymous.
According to one member who also asked to remain anonymous: “Only a year and a half ago a missionary brought €500,000 taped to his body from Augsburg in Bavaria – the proceeds from the sale of a house belonging to the church. I drove the car from Germany. I was a witness.” He says the sale of church properties has helped shore up funds as donations fell due to the crisis: this kind of unorthodox international transfer was not a one-off.
Father Dámaso, otherwise known as José Carrasco, says that the sect distrusts the authorities. “Ginés knows there were tax evasions and mafia-like money laundering operations” he says. “This is a great opportunity for the taxman to get to the bottom of El Palmar de Troya’s accounts. They should investigate everyone from Clemente de Domínguez, who was pope from 1978 to 2005, to his successor Manuel Alonso, as well as Ginés Hernández, and find out exactly how their finances worked.”
Dámaso, who moved to Ireland after he left the sect, goes on to recall: “I was the companion of Father Elías, who was previously El Palmar’s accountant. The leadership held secret meetings with bankers from Banesto and consultants from Utrera to tie up business deals. They emerged from the banks with suitcases and were constantly looking over their shoulder. They told me, ‘You should always be one step behind, keeping an eye on the money.”
After a crisis of faith, Pope Gregorio XVIII left the sect, taking with him documents that he has threatened to make public in the event of any legal comeback from the leadership of the church.
“As long as they don’t bother me, I will leave Palmar alone,” says Hernández who denies suggestions that he has stolen €2 million, along with a BMW X6 Popemobile. “I’m registered as unemployed,” he says from his refuge in Monachil, Granada.
El Palmar has managed to keep its financial activities quiet over the past 40 years thanks to a fierce policy of isolation that keeps the faithful isolated from the rest of the world. But things may be about to change. Not only has the business side of its outfit been rumbled, members are also wising up to discrepancies about the sect's predictions.
According to one of its religious texts, “The dragon incarnate, the Antichrist in the form of man, the evil one, was born in the year 2000 in Bethlehem, the City of David.” This was followed by another text, proclaiming, “The Antichrist or evil one, with divine permission, will be shown to us at the age of 12, before he has been freed from his chains. He will come in the guise of a prodigy and he will show wisdom and convince us of his power with fraudulent miracles which will be spread around the world by his infernal mother and other devotees.”
The year 2013 came and went without a trace of this devil, planting a seed of doubt in the community. The promised expansion of the Palmarian kingdom sung about by the church’s 70 monks and nuns as “the biggest known to man” hasn’t materialized either.
The church’s leadership has withdrawn such religious texts on three occasions, once under Hernández’s orders so that the unfulfilled predictions could be removed. The excuse was that they had to bring the pope’s details up to date, but while they were at it, they got rid of anything that could be construed as untrue. It didn’t matter, however, that Domínguez, Alonso and Hernández had lied about visions of the Virgin. The important thing was a blind faith in a religious order.
Miguel Perlado, a psychologist specializing in religious cults and founder of the Ibero-American Association for the Investigation of Psychological Abuse, has treated seven former members and considers them to be severely damaged psychologically.
“The young people who get out are lost,” he says. “They have a big problem with their identity. They have been emotionally abused and brainwashed into feeling terrified of Satan.”
After years of being subjected to the sect’s radical doctrine, they suffer psychopathological conditions that lead to serious problems such as drug addiction and anxiety attacks. Perlado defines the sect as “a money-making machine.”
“The worst thing is how they brainwash the children who are not allowed to speak to anyone outside the church,” says Father Guido.
So how did a movement like this, initially buoyed by nothing but fabricated apparitions, manage to attract so many members?
Apparently Domínguez was blessed with an irresistible charisma, which he used to seduce potential followers. And while he was enjoying sexual relations with various partners, he demanded absolute celibacy from his followers, who worshiped his leadership qualities. He had an opinion on everything and a lively personality. Manuel Alonso, who would be the next Pope, worked in the wings translating ultraconservative texts into a range of languages to gain a worldwide following. They nurtured an us-and-them mentality with enemies including the Roman Catholic Church, masons, communists and the political classes.
The current Pope, Pedro III, declined to comment on the revelations concerning his church. “We don’t give interviews,” he told EL PAÍS over the phone.
Meanwhile, Perlado concludes: “Movements that are driven by money are brutal. You can only get in via the Al Capone route.”
Rules and more rules
Ginés Jesús Hernández maintains that he relaxed the rules for members during his five-year term as pontiff. However, psychologist Miguel Perlado contests this: “Far from the rules being relaxed, they became much stricter. There were far too many demands made on young people who can never attain this kind of pure state.” For example, the sect has imposed increasingly stricter rules on members, banning them from going to the movies or wearing short sleeves.
Meanwhile, Hernández has imposed his political views under the guise of religion.In a sermon delivered on 20 November, 2011 that coincided with a general election in Spain, Hernández told members to do the following: “prayer and penitence; prayer and penitence; obedience to the hierarchy and humility. This is Christ’s way. This or nothing. The cross or nothing."
Refering to Spain's system of regional autonomy, he said: “Every autonomous region wants more concessions so that they can steal more. The Bilderberg group manages the world, them and other small groups that are interrelated… When a government annoys them, they give them a call. Change or your life is over. Just look at the Italian prime minister Aldo Moro.”
He added that El Palmar de Troya has had to shed followers in recent years: “We had to excommunicate nearly half the church. Almost all our followers in Ireland have been excommunicated, also in Germany and in many other places,” he explained, highlighting the dangers posed by society: “The internet, like all other means of communication, is managed by the masons, my dear children,” he said.
English version by Heather Galloway.