Tuesday November 20,2007
By Nick Fagge in Praia da Luz

DETECTIVES have carried out fresh searches at the church where Kate and Gerry McCann prayed for their missing daughter, it emerged yesterday.

The Roman Catholic priest who offered comfort to the distraught parents and gave the couple their own set of keys to the chapel has also been reinterviewed by investigators.

Portuguese police carried out a detailed search at Our Lady Of Light church in Praia da Luz and the surrounding area, including the old cemetery.

The operation was carried out “informally and with maximum discretion” by agents from the Policia Judiciaria as they followed up leads into possible hiding places for Madeleine’s body.

Officers “spent the day” with Father Jose Manuel Pacheco, questioning him for several hours and also visiting him at home.

Detectives want to understand the precise nature of the relationship between the McCanns and Father Jose and what involvement the 16th century church itself played during the five months the couple were in the Algarve.

The priest became a close friend and confidante of the McCanns after Madeleine’s disappearance on May 3.

The couple, who are devoted Catholics, attended Mass most Sundays and also participated in several candle-lit vigils at the tiny church.

Father Jose even gave the couple, from Rothley, Leics, their own set of keys so they could pray in private whenever they wished.

He has since been reprimanded by the church authorities for allowing himself to get so close to the couple.

The Bishop of the Algarve, Dom Manuel Quintas, was particularly critical of his decision to give church keys to the McCanns.

Father Jose has previously said he felt “deceived” in connection with the investigation but has never clarified what he meant by this statement.

A friend of Father Jose yesterday said the priest had changed since the Madeleine affair, which had deeply affected him. He has moved out of the clerical house he used to share with other priests in the parish and now lives with his elderly parents.

He has also almost completely stopped going out. The friend said: “Whenever anybody talks about Madeleine he steers the talk on to other subjects. He has stopped going to all the places he used to go, especially the coffee shops.

“There are two completely different Pachecos, the one before the McCanns and the one after.”

The latest searches took place two weeks ago on the orders of Paulo Rebelo, Portugal’s second most senior policeman, who took over the investigation last month.

He has re-examined the entire case and even ordered a re-enactment of the night Madeleine went missing from the family’s holiday apartment.

Detectives visited Father Jose at his parents’ home in Odiaxere, about 10 miles from Praia da Luz and close to the Barragem da Bravura lake which detectives searched last month for the body of the missing four-year-old girl.

Officers then followed the priest to the church in a separate car in order to be discreet and avoid unwanted attention.

Last night it was unclear whether Father Jose had been asked to make a formal statement as a witness in the case or if officers had searched his home.

It is possible they asked him if he had ever taken confession from either of the McCanns, although Father Jose has previously said he would never reveal anything he had been told during confession.

Police sources have said in the past that they believe Madeleine to be dead and “either on the bottom of the ocean or in the church”. Some officers believe that the toddler died after an accident in the holiday apartment and that her body was disposed of more than three weeks later.

It has been suggested the body was hidden in the church or its grounds and then taken away in the boot of the McCanns’ Renault Scenic hire car.

However, after more than 200 days since Madeleine’s disappearance, Portuguese police insist that all avenues of inquiry remain open.

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