A 40-year-old man has been arrested by police in Spain on suspicion of murdering Fr. Alfonso Benito López, an 80-year-old priest who was found dead in his apartment, on Tuesday, 23 January.
According to official sources quoted by local press, the suspect was arrested after using the victim’s bank card in a bar in Valencia, the coastal city where the crime took place. He was found in possession of the bank card and Fr. Alfonso’s mobile phone.
Suspicion of foul play was aroused immediately, when the janitor received a text message from the priest’s phone only minutes after having discovered his corpse. Other friends and acquaintances had received messages in the previous days, saying that the priest was going to be out of town for a week to deal with personal matters.
Local police have not made any official statements, but local media report that the suspect is a Peruvian immigrant, with no prior criminal record, who was regularly seen at the priest’s house and identified by witnesses as having been in the building in the days before the body was discovered.
Fr. Alfonso’s body was found with no signs of obvious violence, but police suspicions that he was asphyxiated were confirmed by a subsequent autopsy. The medical examination also concluded that the murder probably took place in the early hours of Tuesday morning.
Police are also looking into four bank transfers that were carried out in the hours before the murder allegedly took place, according to “Las Provincias”, to confirm if the priest was being blackmailed, or had been a victim of extortion.
Priest’s charity work questioned
In initial coverage of the crime, neighbors and friends recalled that Fr. Alfonso was in the habit of helping young men who had had trouble with the law to reorganize their lives and reintegrate into society.
More recent allegations, however, cast a darker light on the priest’s activities. Local media claim to have confirmed reports that some of these young men were in fact paid to work around the house and, in some cases, to engage in sexual acts with the priest.
It has also emerged that the coming and going of young men at Fr. Alfonso’s residence had already been a cause of concern and even of conflict with neighbors, since some of the men had on occasion been rowdy and acted aggressively. In at least one case the police were called in when one man threatened the priest, saying he owed him money. At the time Fr Alfonso declined to press charges.
According to Valencian paper “Levante”, the archdiocese had already requested that the priest stop receiving young male guests, explaining that the Church’s commitment to helping needy people did not involve inviting them into private homes.
If Church authorities were indeed aware of the allegations that Fr. Alfonso was in the habit of soliciting sex from vulnerable young men, this may explain the short and blunt statements issued by archdiocese since the day he was found dead, saying only that it had received the information from the press and the police, and that the Church is willing to cooperate with ongoing investigations, but reflecting little of the shock and confusion of the wider community.
Two days after the priest’s body was discovered, there is still no information about the case, or any statement, on the archdiocesan website, despite the fact that Fr. Alfonso was a former canon of the cathedral of Valencia, and a close friend of the former archbishop, Cardinal Antonio Cañizares.
Local media say that the police have already interviewed archdiocesan representatives to cast light on the priest’s personal habits and routines.
Fr. Alfonso was ordained in 1969.
An expert in canon law, he worked for years in the local canonical tribunal and was the author of several books, as well as an expert on the issue of the martyrs of the persecutions in Spain of the 1930s, having personally conducted the beatification processes of 250 of them.