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When a friend came calling on Father Alfonso Benito López on Tuesday in the Old City of Valencia, the janitor of the building went looking for him, only to find the 80-year-old priest lying dead on his bed, in his pajamas.
Old City, Valencia. Image via

With no signs of forced entry or of a struggle in the apartment, and no visible wounds on the body, it would have been easy to conclude that the priest had died of natural causes, at least a couple of days earlier, given the condition of his corpse.

So you can imagine how surprised the janitor must have been to receive a text message only a few minutes later, which was supposedly sent from the priest lying dead in front of him. 


Police later ascertained that several other friends and acquaintances had received similar messages over the previous days, all seemingly sent after Fr. Lopez had died.

After the janitor received a text message from the dead priest, his death been treated by police as a homicide, to the shock of the good citizens of Valencia, an ancient and beautiful city that sits on Spain’s Mediterranean coast.

“People have been quite astonished”, said Lucia Ballester, a Catholic who was born and raised in Valencia. 

“Everyone is finding it very strange, like something out of a movie. My grandmother even mentioned [the Umberto Ecco novel] ‘The name of the Rose’”. 

“The center of Valencia is a very safe and calm area, where you can walk until late at night without any problems. Besides, Fr Alfonso was a beloved and compassionate person, always willing to help anyone who knocked on his door. The neighbors say he had helped several young people with criminal records in recent years,” Ballester added. 

For its part, the Archdiocese of Valencia said it learned of the priest’s death from the police, and released a brief statement Jan. 23, which said: “We regret this sad death and are at the disposal of the authorities, should they consider that the cooperation of the archdiocese can help in any way to enlighten the facts.”

Police investigate young ex-cons

Fr Alfonso López was a former canon of the Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Valencia, and a close friend of the city’s former archbishop, Cardinal Antonio Cañizares. 

An expert in canon law with a doctorate from the Lateran University in Rome, he was heavily involved in local Catholic organizations and had a track record of helping young former convicts get back on their feet, and organize their lives. 

These young men frequently visited him at his home, and were known to the janitor and neighbors. But according to local newspaper Las Provincias, there was an incident two years ago when one of the young men turned aggressive, claiming the priest owed him money, and demanding it back. 

According to the same newspaper, police are also investigating claims that in the weeks before his death Fr. López had cryptically told a friend that he had to carry out a number of financial transactions, which may be a sign that he was being blackmailed. 

With no signs of forced entry, or of struggle, authorities believe that any assailant would have been known to the priest, who may have let his alleged killer into the house. Police also believe, pending confirmation from an autopsy, that the victim was smothered with a pillow. 

There is no clear indication of why the suspected murderer sent messages to the priest’s friends and acquaintances. 

The first message indicated vaguely that Fr. Alfonso was going to be out of town for a few days to handle some personal matters. And according to local press reports, there is nothing in later messages, including the one found after the discovery of the body – a fact presumably unknown to the message’s author – that indicates a motive, such as extortion. 

One hypothesis is that the murderer was trying to delay the discovery of the crime, perhaps to give him time to escape. 

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Martyrs of Valencia

Although Spain has a checkered history regarding relations with the Catholic Church and anticlericalism, violent crime against clergy is rare. 

Almost exactly one year before this latest incident, a man wielding a machete attacked several churches in the city of Algeciras, near the Strait of Gibraltar, killing a sacristan and wounding a priest. The criminal was an illegal Moroccan immigrant, who had been ordered to leave the country, and the incident was treated by Spanish authorities as a case of Islamic terrorism.

Thousands of priests and religious were murdered during the Spanish Civil War, which lasted between 1936 and 1939, mostly at the hands of the republican forces — an assortment of communists, anarchists and other left-wing militias. 

At least 233 Catholics were martyred in Valencia in the persecutions before and during the Spanish Civil War. Fr Alfonso, who was an expert on the subject, personally oversaw the beatification process of at least 250 civil war martyrs.

Although the pro-Catholic nationalists, led by Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco, eventually won the war, there is still lingering anti-clericalism, Lucia Ballester explained. 

“In Spain, there's an underlying anti-clerical sentiment in some parts of society and there has been for many years. In many parts of Spain, if you are a priest, and you wear a cassock, people look at you strangely, not only because it's seen as anachronistic but also because, for some, being Catholic is associated with being right-wing, and therefore, a fanatic, or even a fascist,” she told The Pillar

“I have a friend who is a seminarian in Andalusia and recently a group threw stones at him, calling him ‘cuervo’ [crow] which is a derogatory term referring to priests.”

“In Valencia we had a left-wing government until recently that, frankly, didn't shy away from disrespecting the clergy and, by extension, all Christians,” said Ballester. 

“For example, they would make a point of never participating in the traditional city processions. And when left-wing groups would organize protests and demonstrations, in favor of abortion, for example, they tended to schedule them in the Plaza de la Virgen, where the cathedral is located, at a time when Catholics will be at Mass. I remember being at Mass once and hearing them say ‘We're going to keep coming here to keep shouting, we know it bothers them’,” Ballester recalled. 

Currently, however, Ballester said that “coexistence is generally good” and that “most people are nice and kind”, and there is no indication that the alleged murder of Fr Alfonso was motivated by anticlericalism. 

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