Published February 13, 2006
Mel Gibson made so much money from “The Passion of the Christ” that he’s now putting it where his mouth is, so to speak. He’s continuing to build a religious compound in Malibu for Catholics who reject Vatican II, and is implicitly endorsing his controversial father’s beliefs by helping him launch a similar church in Pennsylvania.
Last year, according to federal tax filings, Gibson parked $5 million of his "Passion" profits in his tax-free private foundation — the same vehicle he’s used to pour millions into a 17-acre religious compound he’s building in Agoura Hills, Calif., at a “secret” rural location.
The setup — first written about three years ago in The New York Times — now includes his very own 9,000-square-foot Holy Family Catholic Church. The church has about 70 members and a collection of buildings under construction.
In 2005, the AP Reilly Foundation — which Gibson named for his late mother and created for the sole purpose of funding the church — spent $115,000 on architect’s fees, $171,000 on landscaping, $121,000 for engineering consultant and $50,000 on legal fees.
The tax filing indicates that the Foundation now claims total net assets of $14 million. That includes a previous balance of $9 million and the $5 million Gibson moved there during the last year. All the money from the Foundation has gone toward building the church and maintaining it.
The Holy Family Catholic Church would not be of so much interest if its existence had not sparked a firestorm three years ago in the New York Times. Writer Christopher Noxon revealed that the church was for Gibson and fellow parishioners who subscribed to 16th century Catholic values, and did not agree with Vatican rulings of 1965 that, among other things, absolved Jews of Christ’s death.
The same article revealed that Gibson’s father, Hutton Gibson, denied the existence of the Holocaust. "It's all — maybe not all fiction — but most of it is," Hutton Gibson has said of the Holocaust on several occasions.
Mel Gibson had tried to distance himself from his father, but subsequent interviews proved to be a wash. After telling Diane Sawyer that the Holocaust “was an atrocity of monumental proportions," the Oscar-winning director of “Braveheart” got into more trouble with conservative speechwriter and pundit Peggy Noonan.
Asked by Noonan in Readers' Digest whether the Holocaust happened, Gibson answered: "Yes, of course," but elaborated ambiguously, "the Second World War killed tens of millions of people," he said. "Some of them were Jews in concentration camps. Many people lost their lives."
If Gibson was trying then to separate himself from his father’s incendiary comments, it hasn’t worked. A more recent article, in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, revealed that Gibson is planning to fund a church similar to Holy Family in Mt. Pleasant Township, Pa., called St. Michael the Archangel.
According to the article, Gibson was persuaded by his father to become involved and may have assisted in the purchase of an existing structure for a little over $315,000.
St. Michael’s and its clerical leader, like the Holy Family Church in Malibu, are not recognized by the archdiocese. The new church is officially supported by something called the World Faith Foundation, which in turn is named in papers filed by another charity, James Hirsen’s Foundation for Free Expression, as an affiliated group.
Hirsen is a close friend and vocal supporter of Gibson, and he frequently publishes editorials on conservative Web sites endorsing the movie star’s religious views.
Meanwhile, Holy Family’s religious leader is named on a Web site for independent Catholic churches in California as the Most Reverend Tourkom Saraydarian , who lists his own religious affiliation as the Aquarian Education Group. It’s not clear what if any association Saraydarian may have had with a religious philosopher of the same name who died in 1997.
With the exception of Tom Cruise, no major box office star has devoted so much time to making his religious beliefs public than Gibson. Portrayed for years in the press as a “devout Catholic,” it turned out his brand of Catholicism had little to do with mainstream church.
You can’t find the Holy Family Catholic Church just by looking it up in the phone book. And unlike with most other religious institutions, you can’t just walk up and have a look around. That’s because the multimillion-dollar compound Gibson is still building for a relatively small and unsanctioned sect of retro-Catholics is kind of hidden in the open.
I visited the compound over the weekend, managing to find it high on a hill at 30188 W. Mulholland Highway, between Sierra Creek and Kanan roads in Agoura Hills, Calif., abutting Malibu. This is rural country, full of scrub brush, a good place to hide a project you don’t want the public to see.
One look at Holy Family's chapel confirms that the great joys of churchgoing are such that inclusion is not paramount in Gibson’s clubhouse. Parishioners, from what I could tell, are few. They sit on what looked like uncomfortable stiff chairs. The millions put out by Gibson were not for luxury, that’s for sure.
There were three pieces of paper taped to the windows of the main chapel doors, which were locked. One of the papers warned about using cameras; another described how one could get communion; and the third explained that women had to have their heads covered at all times when inside the chapel.
I wasn’t on the premises very long before a young man driving a new black Chrysler 300 sedan pulled up and told me I was on private property. The man, who introduced himself as "Will," looked like a younger version of Gibson and may have been the actor's 22-year-old son.
“This is a private chapel,” he said. Maybe, but Holy Family is also a beautiful Spanish-style structure situated on top of a hill with breathtaking views. What you can’t see from the church, though, is that Holy Family’s neighbors are two biker bars that each serve tasty, popular barbeque.
About a quarter mile up Mulholland is Ed and Vern’s Rock Store, a local hangout with an outdoor patio. Lined up along the road in front Ed and Vern’s, when I pulled up, were dozens of shiny silver motorcycles that belonged either to actual bikers or Prada-clad weekend Hell's Angels.
It wasn’t long before a familiar but unexpected face appeared on the patio -- former TV star Robert Blake, recently found not guilty of murdering his wife. He was dressed neatly in an oatmeal-colored sweater and khakis, and looked fit. Blake, who lives nearby, spoke to the owner of the bar for a few minutes before leaving.
Blake’s exit coincided with the arrival of former “Cheers” star Woody Harrelson, who sported a large straw hat and carried a mini Chihuahua. The dog was smart enough not to leave its chair while Woody got drinks out of the cooler. Eventually Woody was met by a comely young woman who scooped up the dog and Woody and they all left together.
Andy, the proprietor of Ed and Vern’s, told me that it wasn’t unusual for celebrities to come and go at what looks like a Hell’s Angels picnic idyll. He said Jay Leno is a regular customer, and Arnold Schwarzenegger stops in all the time. This corner of Agoura Hills is one busy place. And what of Gibson?
“He’s building a Taj Mahal up there,” Andy said of his neighbor. Alas, such a palace, according to the tax filing, generated only $21,000 in property taxes last year.
Gibson, meanwhile, who’s been photographed recently festooned in a long gray and white beard, is busy readying his new film, "Apocalypto," for release by Touchstone/Disney this spring. It was produced in Mexico, about ancient Mayan civilizations, and is apparently entirely acted in ancient Mayan. Gibson fully financed "Apocalypto," with its religious overtones, from the money he made from "The Passion of the Christ."
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