ORENSE, Spain — She was called Nieves, and he, Gregorio. They fell in love in torrid, romantic Andalusia. She had had her eye on him, it was said, since they were teenagers and she was an aspiring nun. Now he was 56 and they could confess their mutual adoration. It would be one of those beautiful love stories that plays well on daytime television, and nothing more, had Nieves not spent years digging into certain scandals surrounding the Palmarian Catholic Church, and were Gregorio not Gregorio XVIII, said by the several thousand followers of the schismatic sect to be the one true Catholic pope.
Since May there has been a new pope, Peter III, in the would-be “Spanish Vatican,” because Gregory XVIII "lost his faith,” he said, and eloped with Nieves. She had uncovered plots against him, according to various reports. And, having left the fold, he decided to tell all he knew (or said he knew) about this sect and the millions of dollars in donations the Palmarian Church receives each year.
If you have never heard of it, you are forgiven.
Ex-Pope Gregory XVIII, now simply Ginés Jesús Hernández, told the press that “from the beginning,” when the church was founded in 1974, “everything was a farce” created to satisfy the tastes of its leaders, both financially and sexually.
Doubtless this comes as shock to the estimated 5,000 believers in this secretive cult, who were accustomed to hear Gregory intone fire-and-brimstone sermons that railed against communists, Freemasons, and Vatican Council II. The Bilderburg Group and the Trilateral Commission are running the world, he warned. The Anti-Christ is among us. “Prayer and penitence, prayer and penitence” and “obedience to the hierarchy,” he demanded. He would be borne aloft on the shoulders of the faithful, riding in his papal throne amid clouds of incense and the music of organs through the halls of the magnificent Cathedral of Our Crowned Lady of Palmar, even as he demanded of his followers “humility.”
Whence came this cult?
El Palmar de Troya is a small town in southern Spain about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Seville. It has 2,400 inhabitants, and nobody had heard much about it, really, until the late 1960s when four teenagers claimed that the Virgin Mary had appeared to them there. After the commotion, dozens of visionaries emerged, looking to get rich thanks to apparitions the Catholic Church in Rome rejected as bogus.
One such visionary was Clemente Domínguez, who in 1969 claimed to have seen for himself the Virgin in El Palmar de Troya. He settled into the place and, along with his faithful sidekick Manuel Alonso, would celebrate rites in which they carried a portrait of Jesus, whom they called Santa Faz, and then would fall into strange ecstatic trances. In 1970 the Catholic Church in Rome publicly warned against Domínguez’s lies, denying that he had the visions he claimed or the stigmata that “miraculously” had appeared on his body.
Still, Domínguez was able to found his religious order without breaking with the Catholic Church. He just worked around Rome. A Vietnamese Catholic archbishop consecrated him as a bishop in 1976. That same year, a traffic accident cost Domínguez his sight in both eyes, which paradoxically accelerated his “visions.”
In 1978, the death of Pope Paul VI surprised Domínguez as he was on a tour proselytizing in Colombia. He immediately returned to Seville and proclaimed himself Pope Gregory XVII, announcing that his church was “the Church”—the true Catholic Church. Soon he was commanding the faithful not to wear jeans, or watch television, or read newspapers, or have any relationship with former members. To break the rules was to invite excommunications from this one true (albeit rather small) Catholic Church.
Meanwhile the Palmariana Church was excommunicated by Rome.
So where, you might ask, did this self-anointed pope come from?
In the 1980s the Palmariana Church jumped onto the front pages in Spain with a story that its Holy Father was said to have mutilated his testicles and pressed a cilice, a sort of spiked band, into his eyes, damaging them severely, before he reached the peak of mystical revelation.
Then, in 1997, Domínguez (Gregorio XVII), admitted to molesting priests and nuns of his order, and apologized for what he called his “sexual incontinence.” It was around this time that the Spanish press discovered how popular Domínguez had been in Sevilla in the 1970s, before he put on the bishop’s miter. At night, in that last decade of Fascism, he became a well-known drag queen called La Voltio, the Volt. (Domínguez died in 2005.)
Domínguez’s “Church,” ironically and cynically strived to give Fascism a good name. It was anti-Marxist, anti-Masonic. It “canonized” the late dictator Francisco Franco and declared Christopher Columbus a saint as well. Then came the million-dollar donations, the followers around the world, the monks and nuns of his order, the construction of the imposing basilica in El Palmar de Troya and, eventually, three more popes.
If this were a parody, and fiction, it could be a great comedy, but it’s perhaps less amusing than the story of Pope Gregory XVIII running off with his lover this spring.
Several former members of the sect claim that they have been separated from their families, who are supposedly forbidden to speak or have thrown them out of their homes. All report that the most painful aspect of church discipline is the way children are brought up, allegedly forbidden even to speak with other children at school who do not belong to the sect.
Nobody not part of the sect knows what lurks within the walls of the Basilica of El Palmar. Only members are allowed in.
“Young people, when they get out, are completely disoriented, with brutal problems of identity, emotional abuse, inoculated with the fear of Satan,” psychologist Miguel Perlado, who has treated seven ex-members, claimed to the Spanish daily El País.
In recent years, allegations of tax collection issues and money laundering have become big issues for the church, and most likely led to the several schisms within the schism that we’ve seen. The internal struggle for power, rather than a sudden epiphany, may be what triggered the surprise "loss of faith” by ex-Pope Gregory XVIII.
It wasn’t for nothing that he sent a letter to the church leadership when he left, warning, “As long as they don’t come after me, I won’t talk about Palmar.”
But in the end, he didn’t wait, and launched what looks like a bizarre chapter in this struggle between past and present pseudo-pontiffs, with a lot of money at stake, and a lot of damage done.
Note that the wealthiest faithful do not come from humble little Palmar, but from the United States, Switzerland, and Germany, whose patronage make the Palmarian Church into the murky center of power it is today. Thus far it has failed to shoot down scandals around allegations of depriving people of their liberty, nor the confessions of sexual abuse by its former Pope, nor the dozens of failed prophecies that have to be corrected quickly after they don’t come true.
Anyone see that Anti-Christ that was supposed to walk the earth in 2012?
No. But, in fact, some people still keep the faith in Palmar, and fork over the money. It’s just that, since this summer, the former Pope Gregory XVIII isn’t one of them.