Former S.A. priest leading Costa Rican church that many call cult

KENS 5 Eyewitness News/February 16, 2004
By Deborah Knapp

The Archdiocese of San Antonio is warning Catholics about a breakaway church deep in Central America. Dozens of San Antonians have visited the sanctuary in Costa Rica and support it financially. But an investigation is underway to see if this sanctuary is truly Eden or evil.

"I was asking people, just asking them, I can not order them because if they want to travel to hell, that's their business," San Antonio Archbishop Patrick Flores said.

The place Archbishop Patrick Flores is asking San Antonio Catholics to stay away from is a sanctuary in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica, with its rain forests, jungles and mountain scenery, has been likened to paradise. But there's a warning to Catholics: Stay away from a sanctuary there.

The reason -- a visitor from San Antonio and a controversial visionary that has the Costa Rican government investigating and the archdiocese of San Antonio involved.

Father Alfredo Prado fled San Antonio last fall after church officials ordered him into a retirement home. Now he's involved in a controversial Costa Rican religious group at a small sanctuary nestled on a ridge above a coffee plantation.

The 73-year-old Prado is accused of sexually abusing teenage boys more than 30 years ago while serving as pastor at St. Timothy's Catholic Church in San Antonio.

He has never been charged and Prado denies any wrongdoing.

Dozens of San Antonians have visited the compound in Central America. Some are drawn by Prado, others come to hear a 24-year-old with only a third-grade education.

Juan Pablo Delgado is the leader of what locals call the Virgin Cult.

Delgado claims the Virgin Mary and Christ appear to him and talk directly to him. He then relates the messages to the faithful.

San Antonio Express-News reporter Dane Schiller, who wrote about the group, was at the sanctuary with San Antonians when Delgado had visions.

"He'll have the microphone and if it's words from the Virgin Mary, his voice will get higher and he'll share the message with people and people are literally rapt,"Schiller said.

Delgado has his own Web site where these messages are posted.

They range from encouraging people to pray, to doomsday prophecies predicting the end of the world.

The local Costa Rican archdiocese has spent a year and a half investigating the so-called Virgin cult. It has handed over its report filled with first-hand accounts and photos to the Costa Rican government.

One Costa Rican priest who warned locals to stay away was beaten up. He said he believes Delgado's followers were responsible.

But there has been no other reported violence.

The Costa Rican archdiocese does not believe Delgado is dangerous, but they call him a false prophet.

"He claims to have the stigmata wounds like Christ on his hands and feet. The church says he cuts himself,"Costa Rican diocese spokesman Father Sixto Varela said.

Schiller spoke to San Antonians who believe God inflicts the wounds. They even treasure Delgado's blood stained socks.

"One woman told me she about smelling his socks. It was just for her incredible, it was a very sweet smell that came from God,"Schiller said.

The church said Delgado is taking the people's money, but fears the real danger is Prado.

The church and Costa Rican child welfare officials are concerned for the safety of several teenage boys living at the compound with Prado and Delgado.

When KENS 5 visited the compound, both Prado and Delgado waved to the camera, but members of the sanctuary refused to let KENS enter with cameras saying Prado forbids it.

Earlier in that day KENS visited the compound without cameras. KENS went inside the small sanctuary under the tin roof where Delgado is said to have his frequent visions of Mary and Christ.

There's a life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary and pictures of her on the wall. In one she is weeping blood.

There is also a vestment with a likeness of Christ.

Delgado said he painted it with his own blood.

KENS several times requested an interview with Prado.

He told KENS he had to ask the Virgin Mary.

He said, "The blessed mother has cut off all reporters."

Letters to the local archdiocese show Prado has been expelled from the Oblate order in San Antonio and is forbidden to perform priestly duties.

But as recent pictures show, he celebrates Mass.

The San Antonio church has tried to bring him back.

"Two of his superiors went to see him and told him to get away from there. He refused,"Flores said.

If immigration officials catch him working as a priest he could be deported for violating his visitor's visa.

Meanwhile, the universal Catholic Church is asking believers to keep out.

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