THE Child Welfare Office (PANI) is trying to obtain asearch warrant to check on the well-being of childrenwhose parents have interned their families in a compoundof a cult of the Virgin Mary, which calls itself theAssociation of the Woman Dressed with the Sun, or theVirgin Queen and Lady of All Creation.A U.S. woman who lived near the compound has fileda criminal complaint against cult leader Juan PabloDelgado and the 60-70 other members of the group, allegingsome of them physically threatened her. According tothe woman’s Costa Rican lawyer, her case demands thatcult members evacuate a house she and her husband builton their property near the compound in Grecia, a CentralValley coffee town northwest of San José.And a controversial U.S. priest living at the compoundis awaiting a decision by the Constitutional Chamber of theSupreme Court (Sala IV) on his appeal of an Immigrationorder that he abandon the country.PANI has accused five families in the compound,which have a total of 11 children between them, of denyingtheir children their right to education.Child welfare officials also have requested a searchwarrant from the Family Court to enter the compound’s privateproperty to inspect the conditions in which the childrenlive and see how many other minors are living there.The families are part of a cult led by 25-year-old Delgado, who claims to hear messagesfrom the Virgin Mary.The media has turned its eye on thegroup, which has closed itself off to outsiders,intermittently for more than a yearfollowing accusations of Delgado’s erraticand allegedly criminal behavior, and news ofthe arrival of U.S. priest Alfredo Prado,reportedly sued in a civil suit last year in theUnited States for alleged child molestationand stripped of his priestly authority by theOblate Fathers in San Antonio, Texas, forundisclosed reasons (TT, April 15).The Catholic Church in Costa Rica hasdistanced itself from the cult in severalstatements to the media, including an officialrequest in late 2003 in which JoséRafael Barquero, bishop of Alajuela, asksCatholics to steer clear of its unauthorizedreligious activities.ONE of the five families in PANI’ssights has begun sending its children toschools. Child welfare officials in Greciasaid two others are in the process of havingtheir parental rights suspended by theFamily Court. Though those parents haveexhausted measures to protect their rights,the suspension process could take up totwo years, officials said.The two remaining families haveignored the legal proceedings, for whichPANI resorted to an administrative actionlast month. That’s the first step towardstripping them of their parental rights, officialsexplained.“But that (taking away custody of theirchildren) is not the goal; the goal is that thekids go to school,” PANI spokeswomanFanny Cordero told The Tico Times.PANI acted on tips from the children’sschoolteachers, who alerted the agency lastyear that the children had stopped comingto class. It began taking legal action inOctober 2004.Though the Family Court rejectedPANI’s initial request for a search order,the Child Welfare Office has appealed thedecision before a higher court. A decisioncould be handed down any day, accordingto Judicial Branch spokeswoman SandraCastro.If the higher family court gives the go ahead,child welfare officials, the ministriesof Public Education and PublicSecurity and the Judicial InvestigationPolice (OIJ) will conduct a joint search ofthe premises.PANI first intervened in the compoundfour years ago with the request that twochildren receive proper schooling, allegingthat their right to education was being violated.The parents complied, according toPANI.CONTROVERSIAL U.S. priestPrado did not respond to repeated TicoTimes requests for an interview, madethrough his lawyer Gerardo Machado.Earlier this year, Immigration authoritiesordered Prado to leave the country,charging that he illegally worked in thecountry while holding a three-monthtourist visa.Prado appealed this order in a lawsuitfiled before the Constitutional Chamber ofthe Supreme Court (Sala lV), whichaccepted the case April 8 and suspendedImmigration’s order until the case isresolved (TT, April 15).In late 2004, The Tico Times tried toenter the compound to speak with Prado orDelgado, but was turned away by a cultmember who did not give her name withthe promise that, should the Virgin Marydeem the reporter’s intentions pure, thepaper would get a phone call. The callnever came.In late 2003, The Tico Times had aninterview scheduled with Prado to discusssexual molestation allegations against himin the United States, but the priest cancelledthe meeting just hours before it wasto take place.ALICIA Treviño, a U.S. woman whostayed at the compound and said she donatedthousands of dollars to Delgado and hisfollowers, recently left the cult and filed alegal complaint against Delgado and othercult members, according to her lawyer,Federico Morales.Treviño returned to the United Statestwo months ago and has not responded toTico Times interview requests, but herlawyer, Morales, supplied the paper with acopy of her complaint and explained hercase.Treviño first visited the compound inMay 2002 and traveled often between thereand her home in San Antonio, Texas. InMarch 2004, she and her husband JesseTreviño bought property and built a housenearby for nearly $80,000 at Delgado’sbehest, Morales said.“She bought a house close to the santuario(as the compound is called) thinkingthe world would end,” lawyer Moralessaid.Treviño began to doubt the veracity ofDelgado’s claim that he was a vesselthrough which the Virgin Mary spoke, andevents came to a head one night in June2004, when cult members demanded apayment of $4,500 “as punishment for herpride,” the complaint says. They played acassette tape of Delgado “revealing thewords of the Virgin,” telling Treviño shehad to pay.WHEN she refused, they left and laterreturned saying they had a new messagethat ordered her to comply, which she alsorefused. They left – then, minutes later,began to pelt her house with rocks, accordingto the complaint.She said she saw Delgado through herwindow and heard him say, “We’ll seehow much that cost you.”After rocks had shattered five windows,Delgado allegedly kicked the doorand beat it with rocks in his hands, sayinghe wouldn’t leave until she delivered themoney, according to the complaint.She hid in the house that night, then leftfor Texas the next day – but not before giving$4,500 to a man in the group “for fearof the threats and for the confusion doñaAlicia Selva Treviño suffered at the time,”the complaint says.“I understand there are other NorthAmericans who have given lots of money,many from San Antonio,” Morales said. “It’sdangerous because he (Delgado) is convincing.Alicia (Treviño) was blind (to it) for twoyears. Her husband, who is a skeptic, wasconvinced as well,” Morales said.He said he hopes the media attentionhis client’s testimony has garnered willprompt other unhappy former cult membersto file complaints and provide the evidencehis client lacks for a stronger case.