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reader comments: Rivas, Catalina (Katya or Catia)

3 Sept 2009
Dear Skeptic,

I cannot believe that you can actually say that Catalina Rivas is a fraud. I watched the documentary in which a skeptic was with her before the stigmata appeared and stayed with her until the stigmata was gone (the next day by the way). The doctor there said that the wounds she had were impossible by medical terms [?] to disappear in one day. Also, the man who conducted the test (who by the way started out as a skeptic) found that there was no fraud there. You speak of her three marriages, as if she were doomed for it. Well, Jesus forgave a criminal while on the cross. And the man he gave the keys of the church to was a murderer and criminal before he followed Jesus. Be careful with your accusations because the bible says that with the tape you measure shall you be measured. God Bless You.

Your sister in Christ, Maria Lourdes Mikula

reply: St. Peter was a murderer? I don't remember being taught that in parochial school. I like the idea of forgiveness, however, and wish more people would engage in that emotion.

Anyway, I don't say she's a fraud; I say she's a pious fraud. The so-called skeptic you refer to, Michael Willesee, may have  been introduced by Giselle Fernandez as "an internationally respected journalist," but Willesee is actually recognized as an internationally ridiculed buffoon. I am constantly being reminded by viewers like you of the power of television to deceive. Fernandez and Willesee have a story to tell, but it is not the complete story. It is selective and deceptive in its presentation. Without knowing a little bit more about these folks, it is difficult to see how they try to manipulate the viewer.

The program you refer to was shown by the Fox Network and is called "Signs From God: Science Tests Faith." In reality, it should have been called "Dollar Signs: Fox Tests Gullibility."

Fernandez and Willesee take viewers on an uncritical tour through exotic places like Cochabamba, Bolivia, and Monterrey, Mexico, to "scientifically" examine an uneducated woman who writes books in Greek and Latin dictated to her by Jesus, and who is filmed while apparently undergoing a stigmata; weeping and bleeding statues; and rose petals with "miraculous" images of Jesus and Mary. You might ask why Jesus would speak to Catia in Greek and Latin. It's not because those were languages he excelled in but because those were languages that other writers had already published and she could easily copy them.

The program was mostly a rehash of "For All Humanity," a film produced several years ago by Ron Tesoriero, an Australian lawyer, about Catalina "Catia" Rivas, the bleeding statue of Cochambamba, and Nancy Fowler, a nurse who started having visions in 1985 and began causing traffic jams near Conyers Hill in Georgia when word got out that the Virgin Mary was appearing there on the 13th of the month. (The 13th is special for Mary visionaries since she allegedly appeared to three children in Fatima, Portugal, on the 13th of May, 1917.)

Fernandez does not pretend to be anything more than the host, even if a gushing and fulsome one. The program's credibility depends primarily on the reputation of Willesee.  Who is he?

Willesee is introduced by Fernandez as an "internationally respected journalist" and declares that it is "an honor to work alongside" him. She proclaims that he is renowned for his "skepticism and investigative abilities."

The truth is that Willesee is not much of a skeptic, even though his reporting on such topics as psychic ability, dowsing, and acupuncture earned him the 1987 Responsibility in Journalism Award from the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims Of the Paranormal (now known as CSI, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry).

The program demonstrates that he is not much of an investigator, however. His honesty might be questioned as well, based on the fact that he does not mention Tesoriero or his work by name, even though Willesee's program is largely a rip-off of the lawyer's documentary on "scientifically inexplicable happenings." Willesee only says that "a lawyer" got him interested in the subject and states that his own film was "seven years in the making." The bulk of "Signs from God," however, revisits Tesoriero's work on Catia (identified as "Katya" by Fox), including interviews with the same "experts" that Tesoriero used, such as Dr. Ricardo Castoñan, a Bolivian psychologist who claims he's investigated many miraculous claims and found that most of them were authentic. The credits for the program list Tesoriero as one of the "segment producers." That is the only recognition he is given.

Willesee was an Australian television broadcaster who did a Current Affairs program for some thirty years before quitting. He found God and returned to the Catholicism of his youth (though he's been divorced twice) due to his belief that God intervened and saved him from dying in a plane crash in 1998. In 1997, he was listed as one of the top 200 richest men in Australia by Business Review Weekly. Things got even better in 1998. After making a few dollars in radio and real estate investments, he turned to filmmaking. His first film was on "primitive tribes."

Willesee's critical skills were revealed early in the Fox program with his comment on the main proof that Jesus dictates books on theology in Greek to "Katya" Rivas: she has the "imprimatur" of the local bishop. Maybe he doesn't know what an imprimatur is. It is not a seal of approval that a miraculous claim has been authenticated. The imprimatur indicates only that the material is doctrinally sound, not heresy, according to an official censor. Later, he asserts that he believes that blood from a "bleeding" statue of Jesus, which was determined by a scientific lab test to be the blood of a human female, was that of the Virgin Mary! Even Fernandez balked at that speculation. (He also had a CAT scan done of the "bleeding weeping" statue, but for what reason one can only guess.) When two scientists reproduced holy images on rose petals by pressing holy medals into the petals, Willesee commented that they didn't "completely answer" the question of whether the Monterrey, Mexico, petals were authentic. He also claims that since the Mexican rose petals were not for sale, there was no possible motive for deceit. Hence, he believes God is involved in their production. This naive notion that if money is not a motive, the probability that the "miracle" is authentic increases, was stated at the top of the program by Willesee. (He also is impressed if the claimant does not have a "cult" following and is humble.) He seems completely oblivious to the possibility of pious fraud or mental disorders that might motivate a person to deceive for Jesus.)

Finally, Willesee's objectivity, skepticism, and critical skills should be questioned if only because the film is so one-sidedly Catholic. Not only do his alleged miracles that science can't explain involve only Catholics, his experts are Catholics, including the one expert he brings in as a skeptic, Fr. Peter Stravinskas, editor of "The Catholic Answer."

Nevertheless, even a pious though uncritical investigator who thinks he is doing God's work might stumble upon a true miracle. Does Willesee's film demonstrate anything of interest to those looking for a miracle? To me, the only miracle is that anyone takes his work seriously.

The program made it clear at both the beginning and the end that there is some connection between natural disasters and claims of apparitions of Jesus and Mary. I can understand the dramatic effect of trying to connect apparent apparitions with doomsday prophecies and the spate of bad weather we've had on this planet during the last decade, but I can't say that this was a particularly unique decade weather-wise. It is easy to get people to think of weather and natural disasters in terms of human time, rather than geologic time. Comparisons of one decade with another or even one century with another are, however, misleading. Which assumption do you prefer: an All-Good God created the world in such a way that floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, tidal waves, etc., would be a regular feature of life on earth; or, an All-Good God created the world as a benign place but intentionally destroys us on a regular basis to remind us to stop sinning? I think both views are absurd. Even more absurd, however, is the belief that God reveals trivial messages to us, such as "repent" or "Remember: I came to save you."

The film itself does not provide anything of interest except as a lesson in how not to do a scientific investigation of such matters. For example, the main proof that the voices Katya hears (giving her theology lessons in Spanish, Greek and Latin) and the images she sees are not delusions or hallucinations or lies is that when she was given an EEG she produced measurable delta waves while awake. (Delta waves usually occur only during sleep.) If this segment was authentic, all it proves is that Katya has an abnormal brain. Where is the Rosetta stone that declares that God speaks in delta waves? (Note: the film was edited to make it appear that Katya and the doctor performing the EEG [who, for some reason, was in another room behind a soundproof glassed enclosure] were communicating telepathically. We have Mr. Willesee's word that there was telepathic communication regarding whether Katya has epilepsy.)

The segment of the film likely to persuade uncritical viewers that they have witnessed a miracle is the stigmata segment. Some effort went into priming the viewer by stating that the Catholic Church had authenticated some twelve cases of stigmata, including St. Francis of Assisi and Padre Pio. Without belaboring the point, Katya dictated the conditions for the event (telling everyone that Jesus was dictating when and where it would happen). The film showed her before, during, and after the event. At the start, she has scars, but no bleeding wounds on her hands and feet. During the film she starts to show scratches on her face and hands, then bleeding from slashes, not punctures, from her hands and feet. A blood sample is taken and proves to be almost certainly her own blood. Willesee indicates that he expected the blood to be the blood of Jesus! He asserts "there's no way" [the wounds] were self-inflicted."

How thorough was this investigation? First, the film clearly shows that Katya has a rosary with a holy medal wrapped around her left hand and a white cloth clutched in her right hand. On each hand, she is wearing a ring with a protruding setting. Her first wounds are some scratches on her right temple. These are declared by an observer priest to be "consistent" with the crown of thorns wounds of Jesus. Her largest facial wound, however, was on her left cheek. Is this a new wound that Jesus had, that no one knew about until now? Could she have cut herself with her rings, fingernails, toenails, rosary, something concealed in the white cloth? Of course. Did the investigators make sure she had no sharp objects available to her? No. Did they use several cameras, focusing on her hands and feet at all times, to detect any self-mutilation? No. The cameras focused almost exclusively on her agonizing face and the agonized faces of those watching her suffer. Did they try to duplicate her wounds by using only rings, finger and toe nails, and a rosary? No. Did they even try to duplicate a single scratch using such primitive implements? No. Did they identify any medications Rivas takes and whether she took her meds that day? (Does she take blood thinners, diuretics, etc.?) What kind of investigation was this? If this was the "thorough expert analysis" promised us by Fernandez at the top of the show, then new meaning has been given to that expression. The only thing Willesee did that was remotely scientific was to have the blood tested. The results of that test? Well, they are consistent with self-mutilation. Where I come from self-mutilation is a symptom of a mental disorder. That does not mean that Rivas does not suffer real agony. Her suffering is most likely authentic, unlike the investigation of Michael Willesee.

Two Australian readers have informed me that Willesee left his current affairs program under less than honorable circumstances. They say he appeared on TV appearing to be drunk; Willesee claims he was on medication and was tired and emotional. Matt Crowe described the scene this way:

[Willesee] appeared one day looking very dazed. In between stories he was slurring, mumbling and giggling. Then it all became too much and he burst into uncontrollable laughter for several minutes. He kept trying to compose himself but it was no good. At one stage he had almost fallen off his chair.

Andrew Dare put it this way:

[Willesee] claimed to have taken some medicine, but the fact that he was on air, slurry, giggling and almost falling over ruined his credibility. That show was going downhill anyway into the "We put a suit in to be dry-cleaned with $50 in the pocket and 9/10 drycleaners took the money" and "New diet pills - do they really work - our scientific tests (i.e. they hire a guy in a lab coat with a clipboard) prove it" sort of stories.

Mr. Willesee is probably still giggling and falling off his chair at how gullible Americans are and at how ready the Fox Network is to take advantage of that fact.

One reader, Ermanno D'Annunzio of Adelaide, South Australia, wanted to know how I could explain the "colored crystals" that appeared on a floor painting. I don't know why I should try to explain it, since Willesee didn't offer any explanation himself. We were told that the glitter miraculously appeared on a print of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Nevertheless, anybody can put glitter on a print. Nothing miraculous about that. Mr. D'Annunzio wants to know how pictures can cry and how a tear got on a print of the Virgin Mary that was under glass. There are many ways to make statues or prints appear to cry, none of them miraculous. For example, you can surreptitiously dab, squirt, or spray water, salt, or oil on the object. We'll never know what method was used in this case because Willesee didn't follow anything resembling a scientific method to investigate the matter. We are asked to take it on faith, on the word of a person who says it's true. Finally, Mr. D'Annunzio is puzzled by how quickly the alleged stigmatic's wounds healed. Since we only have the word of Willesee that the after pictures were taken the day after the wounds appeared, we don't have a very reliable source for this claim. But even if he isn't lying, there is nothing miraculous about wounds healing quickly, especially if they are superficial wounds (mere scratches). Wounds can appear to be worse than they are in some people because they are taking medications or herbs that thin the blood. A tiny cut can emit a quantity of blood that indicates a larger wound. Also, makeup can do wonders to hide scratches, marks, blemishes, and other signs of our humanity.

Another believer in Katya has written:

Re: your attempt to disprove the story of Katya Rivas aired on Fox.

Just wondering if you have actually looked at or read the writings of this woman? What do you make of a woman with a high school education writing things like this? In these languages etc. ? Her writings are located at www.greatcrusade.org (archived here). What is your explanation for this? So far, we really haven't seen hard core proof from you that any of this didn't occur. The public is not stupid. We all realize that there are elaborate hoaxes out there but the point of faith is believing in what we can see right?

reply: I took at look at the writing posted at the site you mention and found nothing unusual about them coming from a woman with a high school education. Anyone raised Catholic who has heard priestly devotees of Mary preach would be familiar with the messages of her "writings".

You are right. The public is not stupid, but the public's faith can be easily manipulated by a pious fraud with accomplices like Giselle Fernandez and Michael Willesee.

Finally, Rivas has been accused of plagiarizing her "messages" from God, taking them from José H. Prado Flores book Formacion de pedicadores (Training preachers), published six years before Catia's "messages." This aspect of her life is discussed in detail in the entry on Catalina Rivas.

p.s. You sign off as my sister in "Christ," so I think I should say that I've met many people who are follower and worshippers of Jesus, but none of them seem to be referring to the same person. I've concluded that Jesus is what a person imagines him to be. Some imagine a savior, some a preacher of love, some a fire and brimstone angry god, some a kind teacher or moral guide, some a miracle worker, some a healer, some a kind being who listens to their troubles and intervenes on their behalf, and so on. As for harping on the multiple marriages and divorces: it's a Catholic thing, Catia's a Catholic, and I'll just say the Catholic church doesn't remember Henry VIII very fondly.

Rivas, Catalina (Katya or Catia)


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