He's Famed for His Violent Hollywood Blockbusters. but in Private Mel Gibson Is Better Known as the Bankroller of an Extreme Catholic Group Which Calls the Pope a Liberal Enemy and Damns the Modern Church as Evil. WHEN MAD MAX FOUND GOD

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WORLD-FAMOUS film stars are thin on the ground in Downham Market, Norfolk. But the one who sat at the back of St Pius V House one Sunday morning in 1995 acted as if his presence was the most natural thing in the world. He received the sacrament during a Latin Mass given by Father Oswald Baker, and afterwards had coffee with others who, like him, have rejected the established Roman Catholic Church in favour of the traditionalist movement.

He even signed a few autographs.

Mel Gibson returned several times thereafter to Downham Market, to worship with Father Baker.

'He didn't make a fuss or show off,' said one of the other worshippers.

'He came for his faith, and just sat at the back quietly.' It seems a little incongruous that Gibson, the star of violent movies such as Mad Max and Lethal Weapon, should be a practising Catholic.

It seems stranger still that the actor famously voted the Sexiest Man Alive - he of the twinkling blue eyes and numerous buttock-baring love scenes - should be a part of an ultraconservative Catholic splinter group.

For while other Hollywood stars have made no secret of their religious leanings - Tom Cruise and John Travolta are members of the Church of Scientology, Madonna and Demi Moore are followers of the Kabbalah and Richard Gere is a practising Buddhist - Gibson has always kept his beliefs to himself.

But, thanks in no small part to his rabidly Catholic traditionalist father, Gibson is a devout believer. So much so that he is bankrolling the building of a huge new church in Malibu, California, where he and his family worship alongside likeminded believers.

With Spanish-style roofs and long cloisters, The Holy Family Chapel will cover an area of 9,300 square feet - a huge space for just 70 or so members.

Gibson is the director, chief executive officer and sole benefactor of the non-profit corporation behind the church, and he has already poured $2.8 million of his fortune into it.

The expectation is that he will continue to fund the church - not only do he, his wife and their seven children worship there, but his daughter Hannah, 22, is preparing to become a nun.

But The Holy Family Chapel will be no ordinary church. Gibson and his fellow-believers say Mass in Latin, women cover their heads, and the eating of meat on Fridays is forbidden.

The Pope, who is seen as a liberal moderniser, is the enemy, and the modern Catholic Church is condemned as evil. Congregants look forward to Judgment Day, when its wickedness will be dealt with.

Divorce, abortion and contraception are vehemently opposed.

THE HOLY Family Chapel is one of 600 or so traditionalist chapels which sprang up after the Catholic Church embarked on the landmark reforms known as Vatican II, in the Sixties.

Some resemble cult organisations; indeed, one of them, the Society of Saint Pius X, is classified as one by Italian police, and the Apostles of Infinite Love in Quebec are led by a Catholic brother who says he is the incarnation of the one true pope.

Gibson's church is anti-Pope, and believes that reforming liberals in the Vatican have made the modern church structure rotten to the core.

In a rare public statement about his faith, Gibson said last year: 'I agree with everyone who says the Vatican is a wolf in sheep's clothing.' Few at The Holy Family Chapel want to talk about Gibson's involvement.

But last week a church representative admitted that they were supported by an individual congregant with 'tremendous financial viability' - a neat way of describing someone who can command $25million a movie.

Gibson's Press spokesman, Alan Nierob, was happy to confirm the star's involvement, but said he was not sure whether the church itself was yet fully operational.

So how did Gibson become involved in this branch of Catholicism, which certainly has more than its quota of conspiracy theorists and fundamentalists? …