‘Monkey Jesus’ back in the news after Spanish priest is accused of stealing Catholic Church funds
I RETURNED to Spain today from a series of Freethinker business meetings in the UK (I do apologise for being unable to update the blog for a few days due to admin matters) to discover that just about everyone here talking about the arrest of the priest in charge of a Catholic church in the town of Borja.
Back in 2011, the church, Santuario de Misericordia, became the focus of international media attention when a pensioner in her 80s decided that that a Jesus fresco in the church – Ecce Homo, which means “Behold the Man” – needed touching-up.
Celia Giménez’s effort turned the church and the town into a laughing stock – but soon the church, and the good folk of Borja were laughing all the way to the bank as thousands flocked to see Gimenez’s botched effort. Thoughts of undoing the damage were ditched when people realised they had a lucrative tourist attraction on their hands.
The new icon, which quickly became known as “Ecce Mono” for its likeness to a monkey drew some 70,000 tourists within the first year, bringing much-needed custom for local businesses.
Proceeds from an entrance fee charged by the church were destined to go towards its upkeep and to fund a charitable retirement home with 73 residents.
But what’s got people shaking their heads and rolling their eyes here is that much of the income has allegedly been filched by the church’s parish priest, Florencio Garces, 70. He was arrested on Friday for allegedly pocketing church funds of about £174,000.
Garces was detained by Guardia Civil on suspicion of misappropriating funds, of money laundering … oh, and sexual abuse.
Francisco Miguel Avilla, the mayor of Borja, said last year:
When I first saw it, I thought a vandal had deliberately destroyed a masterpiece. But then we discovered it was Cecilia, who is well known in the town and who has had a hard life, who with good intentions had attempted to restore it.
We’ve had hordes of people – 35,000 from August to December – coming to the town just to see the painting. They pay a €1 (80p) entrance fee and stay overnight and eat in local restaurants. That painting isn’t making anyone rich, but it’s keeping businesses in this town from closing.
On weekends and holidays it is virtually impossible to eat in Borja’s restaurants without a reservation.
Garces was released without bail after appearing before an investigating magistrate in Tarazona on Sunday and an investigation opened into the alleged crimes. Five other people were arrested on related charges.
Police said they could not disclose whether the alleged crimes were directly connected to entrance fees collected at the Sanctuary of Mercy Church.
Residents of the town, which has a population of 5,000, expressed shock at the allegations and defended their priest. Giménez said:
We haven’t been told the details of the allegations, but as far as I know he is a lovely man who has cared for this community for more than 20 years.
Earlier, Giménez told the media she believed that she was entitled to a cut of the windfall she created for the town. She complained:
I’ve got nothing from this, everyone else is making money and I’m just criticised for making this ugly thing.
Giménez is actually a fairly accomplished painter. One of her landscapes was donated to Caritas, a Roman Catholic charity, and sold for €1,000 (£880) on eBay after a flurry of bids, and she has been invited to exhibit her work at galleries in Spain and beyond.
Of Ecce Mono she said:
I’ve had lots of exhibitions and sold work to people in the town. As an artist, one wants to be known, but not for creating something one isn’t proud of, not for being a joke. I would at the very least have liked the chance to finish it in a proper way.
Hat tip: BarrieJohn