By Simon Caldwell
Published: 8:00AM BST 27 Jul 2009
Father Tomislav Vlasic, the former "spiritual director" to six visionaries who claim that the Virgin Mary visited them nearly 40,000 times over 28 years, has been laicised by Pope Benedict XVI a year after he was placed under investigation over allegations that he exaggerated the apparitions and had engaged in sexual relations with a nun.
While the Vatican has never given the shrione its formal blessing, an estimated 30 million pilgrims have visited Medjugorje in the last three decades and hundreds of thousands make the journey from Britain and Ireland each year. The unfrocking of Father Vlasic will come as a blow to Medjugorje followers worldwide who were hoping that the Vatican would one day legitimise the controversial shrine.
The Franciscan asked to leave the priesthood after the Vatican launched an investigation into allegations that he was guilty of sexual immorality with a nun which he then covered up.
He was also suspected of exagerating stories of the Virgin Mary's appearance and under formal investigation for alleged "dubious doctrine, the manipulation of consciences, suspect mysticism and disobedience towards legitimately issued orders".
Father Vlasic refused to co-operate with the investigation from the outset and he was banished to a monastery in L'Aquila, Italy, where he was forbidden to communicate with anyone, even his lawyers, without the permission of his superior. He has not commented on the allegations but told the Vatican that he felt wronged given he had turned Medjugorje into an international shrine and generated funds to build new churches.
It emerged on Sunday that he has chosen to leave the priesthood and his order, a move which has brought the investigation to an abrupt halt.
But the Pope has insisted that Father Vlasic observes a set of conditions on pain of excommunication which include a total ban on teaching Christian doctrine and giving spiritual direction.
There is also an "absolute prohibition of releasing declarations on religious matters, especially regarding the phenomenon of Medjugorje".