Disgraced S.A. priest joins sect in Costa Rica

Houston Chronicle/November 2, 2003
By Evan Moore

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 now has become a fugitive from his order and the chief celebrant for a reputedly violent doomsday cult in Costa Rica.

Prado now is 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 pitted 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 teen-age 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 performed magic tricks for children.

That was long before the Oblate Fatherhood stripped him of his clerical authority in 1991, ostensibly over 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.

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.

Delgado, 25, who claims to receive and relay messages from the Virgin Mary, previously had been aligned with a group with a similar name in Heredia, a colonial town just north 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, 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, on which Delgado's "messages" from "the Virgin" are routinely posted.

Among them are predictions that Pope John Paul II soon will 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 teen-age boys working on the grounds either refused to speak or nervously declined, saying they did not have "permission."

The size of the group's membership is unknown, but it is elite. Members are known to include lawyers, physicians, engineers, teachers and now, Prado.

But, with Prado's arrival, it no longer is obscure.

The priest's residency has brought scrutiny on the group.

A San Antonio woman, a former parishioner of Prado's who since has 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."

Ricardo Salinas said 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 didn't 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 doesn't remember Salinas and said he had no sexual contact with him, although he acknowledges he was accused of assaulting Salinas and others.

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 the cult, Harris contacted the church in Costa Rica as well as Rosalia Gil, Costa Rica's minister of youth.

He said he also filed a complaint of fraud against Prado and Delgado, saying they falsely represented themselves as priests, a crime in Costa Rica.

"Unfortunately, without definite proof that children are being molested in that group, there's not much we can do," said Gil, whose agency was involved with the arrest of a child sex-trade ring, another campaign by Harris' organization.

"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."

That prompted Casa Alianza to seek 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."

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