SÃO PAULO – A priest who runs the Basílica do Divino Pai Eterno in Trindade, in Goiás State, one of the most important points of pilgrimage in Brazil, is under investigation for allegedly embezzling more than $21 million donated to the shrine.

The shrine is the only one in the world dedicated to the Divine Eternal Father.

Redemptorist Father Robson de Oliveira Pereira, a TV celebrity in the South American country, is the sanctuary’s rector and manages a set of associations connected to it. The group has a TV and radio station and is taking care of the construction of a new sanctuary in the city.

According to the investigators and prosecutors involved in the inquiry, the associations’ financial transactions currently under scrutiny amount to $300 million. Over the past 10 years, the group has conducted at least 1,200 suspicious operations.

The investigators allege that Pereira used strawmen and shell corporations to mislead officials and create obstacles to the funds’ transparency. Luxury houses, farms, and other properties were bought in the scheme. According to the news website UOL, the priest and other members of the associations may be charged with multiple financial crimes.

Suspicions on the priest’s activities were raised in 2017, when he sought help from the police over a case of blackmail. Criminals claimed they accessed his confidential information and had evidence of an alleged love affair. The priest paid the gang about $360,000 from the accounts of the associations he oversaw.

The investigators said the criminals actually didn’t have any compromising information on the priest, but they became intrigued with the volume of money he was handling and started to look into his finances. That’s how Operation Vendilhões (“Merchants,”in a reference to the biblical passage about the cleansing of the temple by Jesus) was launched. Rodney Miranda, State secretary of Public Security in Goiás, told the news website G1 that two Vatican delegates went to Brazil in 2019 to investigate the large sums collected by the association to build the new sanctuary. He said the envoys informed the Brazilian police about the Church’s own concerns with the origin and use of the funds.

After the police and Goiás State prosecutors raided several locations connected to the priest on August 21 to seize laptops and documents related to the case, the inquiry was made public.

A complex financial structure set up by the priest and the directors of the various associations involved used strawmen to withdrawal and deposit large sums of cash, often on the same day. That was the case, for example, when one of the associations paid $70,000 to a director, who on the same day transferred the same amount to the priest’s sister. Speaking to TV Globo, Pereira denied payments were made to his relatives.

In the August 23 television interview, images of one of the association’s houses frequently visited by him showed a jacuzzi in the yard and marble washbasins in the bathroom.

“It’s normal to have a structure… You’re saying [it’s a] luxurious house, but they’re [only, in reality] good places to rest, to coexist, and to socialize. They’re necessary structures. […] I don’t have anything in my name,” he said.

TV Globo also showed a farm bought by the association for $18 million and a small airplane.

At first, the Archdiocese of Goiânia issued a statement defending Pereira.

It said that the investigation was based on “hasty half conclusions” about donations that had been regularly invested in order to protect the association’s financial health. The statement said Pereira had requested that he be suspended from his duties at the sanctuary and the affiliated association. A fellow Redemptorist priest has taken his place.

On August 23, the archdiocese released a new statement, announcing Pereira was temporarily suspended from functioning as a priest.

The devotion to the Divine Eternal Father began in Goiás in 1840, after a couple of peasants unearthed a medal representing the Holy Trinity coronating the Virgin Mary, eventually leading to a sanctuary being built. It’s is the second most popular pilgrimage site in Brazil, after the Basilica Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida. In 2019, 3 million pilgrims visited Trindade.

In 2010, Pereira announced that a larger sanctuary would be built, to accommodate more pilgrims. The work started in 2012 and is still ongoing. Pereira told TV Globo the total cost of the project might reach $250 million, noting that one bell, manufactured in Poland, costed $1.07 million.

In a video posted on social media, Pereira said that all funds collected have been used for religious purposes.

“Everything, from the first donation till now, is with Afipe [the association] and is used so we can take our evangelizing work to the whole world. My heart is peaceful and confident that everything will be solved any time soon,” the priest said.