Famous Brazilian priest dips his hand into a millionaire collection plate

. Sep 02, 2020
priest accused corruption The controversial basilica

In the world’s largest Catholic country, with around 125 million adherents, Brazil is home to the bizarre phenomenon of the “celebrity priest.” With millions of followers on social media, these famous fathers fill out churches for services that are broadcast live over a wide range of platforms, selling millions of CDs and books, and being featured on primetime television. They also enjoy significant political prestige in a nation where the Catholic Church has always had broad influence over all sectors of society, to the point that their words can be decisive in debates such as the legalization of abortion — still a taboo in the country. 

But, as has been the case in several parts of the world, members of the Catholic Church in Brazil have often been caught up in scandal — and these pop priests are no different. One such notable man of the cloth is suspected of leading a criminal organization accused of dipping its hand in the collection plate and embezzling donations put toward the construction of a mega-church in Central-Western Brazil.

</p> <p>The hyper-temple in question is located in Trindade, in the interior of Goiás state — a region based largely on its agribusiness economy. The money that was meant to be used on building the church ended up enriching local business owners and politicians, as well as the priest himself, say investigators.</p> <p>The alleged leader of this gang is the 46-year-old Father Robson Oliveira. Born and bred in Trindade, he spent some time in Ireland and completed a master&#8217;s degree in Moral Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Upon returning to Brazil in 2003, he took over the parish of the Sanctuary of the Eternal Holy Father in his hometown. One of his first actions in charge was to file a request with the Pope to award the church basilica status. Indeed, the temple is one of the largest in the country, housing up to 2,500 people and attracting millions of pilgrims.</p> <p>Recognition duly came in 2006, when Pope Benedict XVI granted the church the title of &#8216;minor basilica,&#8217; making it the only one in the world dedicated to the Eternal Holy Father. With his mass broadcast live on the Rede Vida TV station, the work of Father Robson began being noticed nationwide and even abroad.&nbsp;</p> <p>Four years later, with his celebrity status established, Father Robson began an intense campaign to build a new, much larger basilica, with a capacity of 6,000 people. He created the Association of the Sons of the Eternal Holy Father (Afipe) to receive and manage donations for the ambitious construction project. The idea is to build a temple that is 94 meters tall, on an area of 120,000 square meters, with the largest suspended bell in the world, made especially in Krakow, Poland. At four meters high, 4.5 meters in diameter and weighing 55 tons, the bell is 78 percent copper and 22 percent tin, and is decorated with images depicting the history of the parish.</p> <p>Budgeted at a total of BRL 100 million (USD 18 million), the construction job was slated to be finished in 2022, said Father Robson. However, it is still in its foundation stage and will be delayed until 2026, despite having raised the equivalent of 20 times its original cost. Public prosecutors have found that Afipe has transferred around BRL 2 billion, which the priest himself confirms. The problem is, according to the investigators, that the money has been used for purposes that have nothing to do with the construction job or religion as a whole.&nbsp;</p> <iframe src="" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>A farm, a beach house, and a plane</h2> <p>Prosecutors suspect that at least BRL 120 million donated by Father Robson&#8217;s congregation were embezzled for the <a href="">purchase of luxury assets</a>, such as a BRL 6 million farm in Goiás and a beach house in the north-eastern state of Bahia, which cost BRL 3 million and is where Father Robson likes to spend his weekends. These R&amp;R trips are often made on a private plane worth BRL 2 million, also bought with the donations of his parishioners.</p> <p>Besides this, a country house with glass walls overlooking a garden, a heated pool, and a hot tub were also allegedly purchased using offerings from the congregation. It was here that Father Robson was relaxing when the police and public prosecutors launched an operation last week to lift the lid on the embezzlement scandal.</p> <p>According to the Public Prosecution Service, Afipe had become &#8220;a large company.&#8221; Police and prosecutors noted that Father Robson had created &#8220;various associations with similar corporate names, with the same purpose and address.&#8221; Some of these companies had the same shareholders and headquarters.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Extortion case sparks investigation</h2> <p>The probe into embezzlement involving Afipe began two years ago, as a result of another investigation, of which Father Robson was the injured party. The priest had been blackmailed between March and April 2017, and &#8220;unduly used funds from the accounts of the association he presides,&#8221; according to the prosecution service. A man was arrested and convicted for demanding BRL 2 million from Father Robson in exchange for not leaking details of an alleged romantic affair involving the priest. However, the police found that the messages used to extort Father Robson were in fact false.</p> <p>According to investigations, the money was moved through bank transfers and deliveries in cash, paid in quantities between BRL 50,000 and 700,000. In some cases, the money was left in a vehicle outside apartment complexes or shopping centers in the city of Goiânia. One of these &#8216;drop-offs&#8217; was supervised by the Civil Police, in a bid to identify all of the criminals involved.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="576" src="" alt="Aerial view of the Basilic" class="wp-image-48908" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 1536w, 610w, 600w, 1920w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Aerial view of the basilica</figcaption></figure> <p>At the time, Afipe said that it &#8220;suffered no financial losses and the entire amount was returned to the institution.&#8221; However, last week&#8217;s court order that authorized Father Robson&#8217;s arrest warrant highlighted that of the BRL 2.9 million withdrawn from Afipe&#8217;s accounts to make the payment, almost half — BRL 1.2 million — was not recovered. These payments allowed investigators to uncover a &#8220;much larger network of persons involved, with misappropriation and negotiations involving the association&#8217;s assets.&#8221;</p> <p>This ensued almost two years of investigations to track and inspect over 1,200 real estate transactions, as well as transfers, deposits, and withdrawals, involving millionaire amounts. Prosecutors say that the amounts transferred — not just by Afipe but by everyone involved in the probe — could exceed BRL 2 billion.</p> <p>Two emissaries from the Vatican visited Trindade in September 2019 to investigate Afipe, as there was some concern about the quantities of funds being raised by the basilica. &#8220;Two police chiefs spoke with them. At the meeting, they told us about the Vatican&#8217;s worries about the amount of money circulating around the church in Trindade, for the construction of the basilica, which has yet to see any progress. The suspicion was about the origin of these funds and their misapplication,&#8221; explains Rodney Miranda, the public security secretary of the state of Goiás.</p> <h2>Deputy mayor among the suspects</h2> <p>The prosecution service&#8217;s report on the operation mentions business owners and politicians who signed voluminous contracts with Afipe. Among them is the Deputy Mayor of Trindade, Gleysson Cabriny, who prosecutors say carried out &#8220;countless&#8221; transactions with the associations controlled by Father Robson. According to the prosecution service, he was a partner of companies that conducted several real estate deals between legal entities and the association, causing losses to Afipe.</p> <p>The report states that &#8220;the evidence is reinforced due to the incompatibility of the nature of the transactions with the purposes of the religious association, the links between the many companies and the suspects.&#8221; Prosecutors noted that one PR company received a sum of BRL 18 million from Afipe between June and November 2018 — during that same period, the company transferred BRL 17.5 million to a chain of gas stations.</p> <h2>Priest on probation</h2> <p>This past Sunday, the archdiocese of Goiânia suspended Father Robson&#8217;s right to give mass, including &#8220;participating, holding, and starring in programs on television, radio or the internet.&#8221; According to the decision, he will be unable to carry out his role as a priest until January 2022.</p> <p>In a press statement issued by Father Robson&#8217;s press office, he said he &#8220;humbly receives&#8221; his suspension, saying that it is standard procedure in canonical law and he is keen to clear up the scandal.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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