The Medjugorje story begins early in 1976 when a Franciscan monk in the former Yugoslavia, Father Tomislav Vlasic, starts an affair with a nun who becomes pregnant. Frightened he will be exposed as the child’s father, Father Vlasic persuades her to move away to Germany. She hopes he will honour his promise to leave the ministry and marry her. She writes a sequence of increasingly anxious letters when this does not happen, telling her former lover she is so miserable that she is praying she will die in childbirth. But he piously orders her to ‘be like Mary’ and accept her destiny in a foreign land — and never to tell a soul who the father really is.

Unfortunately for him, some of his letters fall into the hands of the woman’s landlord who, scandalised, copies them and sends them to a friend in the Vatican.

Six years later Father Vlasic is ‘spiritual leader’ of six children who say the Virgin Mary appears to them daily in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina. But the local bishop is having none of it. The priest writes to Pope John Paul II to say that Satan is working through the bishop and to request direct intervention against him. But, worse luck, the Vatican official with copies of his love letters takes an interest in the case and sends them to the bishop in question.

Disgraced, the priest then heads for Italy where, with a new mistress, he sets up a mixed-sex religious community devoted to the apparitions and continues to party like a bad dog for the next 17 years until the Vatican official who ruined everything for him becomes Pope Benedict XVI.

Three years into Benedict’s pontificate, Father Vlasic today finds himself severely and publicly disciplined in a way which is rare for a person linked so closely to a movement as popular as Medjugorje, which has attracted 30 million pilgrims in 27 years. He is in big trouble, accused of heresy, schism and sexual immorality ‘aggravated by mystical motivations’, as well as ‘the diffusion of dubious doctrine, manipulation of consciences, suspect mysticism and disobedience towards legitimately issued orders’. He has refused to co-operate with the Vatican and is under an interdict confining him to a monastery on the pain of excommunication.

But this is not simply the settling of a vendetta against a modern-day Rasputin with a taste for sex and séances. By striking at Vlasic, the Pope is aiming a killer blow at the Medjugorje phenomenon itself.

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Why would Benedict want to do this? Perhaps because the claims are not true. They have their origin in a de facto schism which occurred when Pope Paul VI tried to transfer a group of parishes from Herzegovinian Franciscans in dire need of reform to the local bishop. Fierce Croatian nationalists who sided with the Nazis during the second world war, one of them, Father Miroslav Filipovic, had earned the sobriquet ‘the Butcher of Jasenovac’ while stationed at the Ustasha concentration camp. Later many joined Tito’s communist state-sanctioned Church, another act which sent the popes apoplectic.

Paul’s papal bull, Romanis Pontificibus, authorised disciplinary measures against the friars resisting the reforms. But on 25 June 1981 Mirjana Dragicevic, Marija Pavlovic, Vicka Ivankovic, Ivan Dragicevic, Ivanka Ivankovic and Jakov Colo told Father Jozo Zovko, a rebel friar and a good friend of Father Vlasic, that they had seen the Virgin Mary at Medjugorje. Significantly, within two months of the first apparitions, Vlasic was the priest closest to the children and remained in that position for three years, boasting to Pope John Paul in a letter of 1984 that he was the one ‘who through divine providence guides the seers of Medjugorje’.

In the early days of the apparitions, Our Lady was not only partisan on the Herzegovina question but preoccupied by it and described the rebels as saints. One of them, Father Iveca Vego, soon made a nun pregnant. Was he having an affair at the time his sanctity was declared? The local bishop, Pavao Zanic, was convinced that Vlasic was puppet-master to the seers and a principal source of the messages imparted by the apparitions. When the future Pope Benedict — then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — informed him of the priest’s earlier infidelities it must have seemed a godsend.

But Vlasic had by then already turned Medjugorje global. He proved a genius at marketing the phenomenon in the West, where it was viewed as part of the wider Catholic struggle against communism. A rising tide of pilgrims saw businesses boom and proliferate. Visitors returned home with instructions to set up Medjugorje prayer groups in their parishes.

However, the families benefiting from the gold rush saw Vlasic as a liability when his affair with Sister Rufina, née Manda Kozul, became public. An exit strategy emerged in the form of Agnes Heupel, a German who claimed she was cured from partial paralysis by a pilgrimage to Medjugorje (she is seen discarding her crutches in a BBC Everyman documentary).

The pair, Vlasic and Heupel, founded their community in Parma in 1987. It was endorsed by Our Lady as ‘God’s plan’ through the seer Marija Pavlovic, who became a member. But Pavlovic left months later and disowned the venture in a written statement. Her change of heart might be explained by the fact that Vlasic and Heupel shared a room together which was locked at night. It is rumoured that Pavlovic caught the couple having sex. In any case, Vlasic was damaged goods, though he continued to have his headquarters in Medjugorje and to write for Medjugorje publications.

By then, however, Bishop Zanic had turned resolutely against the claims. He led two investigations into them and found them unfounded. A third inquiry, involving all the bishops of Yugoslavia, arrived at the same conclusion. Ratzinger banned all pilgrimages to Medjugorje, including individual visits if they presupposed that the Madonna was appearing there.

What has followed in the last 20 years could be described as a propaganda war. Those with a vested interest in the Medjugorje phenomenon have taken every contrary edict, decree or position of the Church and deliberately misinterpreted them so the flow of pilgrims continues unabated. The apparitions continue, oddly enough, with nearly 40,000 in total and no end in sight.

All the evidence indicates that the phenomenon is a calculated and cynical con. Medjugorje has grown wealthy and it is no coincidence that so have the seers. Some own executive houses with immaculate gardens, double garages and security gates, and one has a tennis court. Others drive BMWs and go on frequent foreign trips, and all have married — one of them, Dragicevic, to the former Miss Massachusetts, Loreen Murphy. It must have made Father Vlasic very proud.

It was no surprise then that when the Vatican moved against Vlasic a few weeks ago the Medjugorje spin machine shrieked that the accusations related to the priest’s time at his community in Italy and not at Medjugorje. But this is a lie. All accusations against him pertain exclusively to his time at Medjugorje. We know this because the Vatican decree announcing the interdict explicitly says so, beginning with the words: ‘Within the context of the phenomenon Medjugorje …’

So while those involved in the Medjugorje industry fight a rearguard action, Vlasic stews in a monastic cell pondering whether to confess all or to remain obstinate until the end. It would be best if he confessed. Of course wonderful things happen at Medjugorje and many good people have an incredible time. But if it’s based on a lie, it’s best exposed.

Whatever Vlasic decides, he will not have Miss Heupel at his side. Evidence of a split emerged in 2004 when she entered a debate on
a Dutch online chat-room in which Catholics were discussing an alleged Marian apparition in Amsterdam. She proclaimed that ‘Our Lady of Medjugorje is NOT TRUE …with love from Medjugorje, Agnes Heupel.’

Well, she should know.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated