Most of the residents of Sedella, a small town of barely 700 inhabitants in the Axarquía, profess an enormous faith in their patron saint, the Virgen de la Esperanza. That is why they used to make "generous offerings, even in times of hardship" - said its mayor, Francisco Abolafio Rodríguez - which they deposited in a safe at the foot of the image. Until, to his surprise, the box disappeared and, with it, the money and jewels with which they adorned the Virgen in processions.
The mayor was forced to take action and report the events to the church authorities as the finger was pointed at the ex-priest. However, the mayor, disappointed with the response from the Malaga bishopric threatened to take to case to the ecclesiastical authorities in Madrid or the Vatican, if necessary.
It all came to light on 10 October, after a new priest replaced the old one. The parishioners went to the church to remove the Virgen's jewels from the safe and prepare for a procession on the 12th. It was then that they found that the locked box, which had a small slot for the offerings, had disappeared and the hole where it used to be - at the foot of the image - had been covered up. "As if nothing had ever been there," adds the mayor.
“There were 12 pieces of gold jewellery inside that are priceless to us, especially sentimental and symbolic," explains Rodríguez.
He asked parishioners for an inventory and sent a letter to the bishopric detailing the situation and giving 72 hours to provide a response. “The next day they told me that they had no record of anything and that they would investigate. I gave them three days, but on the fourth I reported it to the Guardia Civil.”
Francisco Abolafio Rodríguez said: “I called the previous parish priest in front of five witnesses, among them the new priest, my second deputy mayor and a parishioner. He told me that in six years he had never had keys to that locked box and that he threw it away. I did not want to enter into controversy and when the conversation became heated I told him that we would meet in the courts.
The mayor sent another letter requesting a meeting with the Bishop while warning that, if he did not get a response, they would go to the ecclesiastical authorities in Madrid. “We were thinking of going to the Vatican if necessary, " he adds.
When the bishopric responded it informed Rodríguez that the jewels had reappeared.
"We believe that at least two pieces are missing, although not of much value." Rodríguez clarifies: “We have had a fairly long meeting. I know that the previous priest has returned them. They have not clarified what will happen to him. I am outraged that this man is representing us as members of the Christian community. I say it as a mayor, neighbour and believer.”
The money, on the other hand, has not appeared. According to the sources it is believed there was around 600 euros in the locked box.
Francisco Rodríguez Abolafio was not convinced by the response from Malaga and asked residents if he should go ahead with the complaint in the courts. Most have decided yes. “I am at the service of my people, and we will continue with the judicial process. As I said in the meeting, 'we have run into the church, but the church has also run into Sedella' ".