Fact Check

Were Two Altar Boys Arrested for Putting Marijuana in a Cathedral's Censer?

"Surely people have left the cathedral happier than ever."

Published Dec. 6, 2018

Image Via Shutterstock
Two altar boys in Spain were arrested for putting marijuana in a censer.

An article about two altar boys being arrested for putting marijuana in a censer (incense burner) at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain was recirculated on social media in December 2018:

What started as a joke ended the future of two altar boys from Spain. They were detained overnight, after having surprised them putting weed in the censer-burner of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

This is not a genuine news report.

The story appears to have first gone viral after it was published on the Spanish-language satirical web site haynoticia.es in January 2018. According to a report in the newspaper El Pais, more than 2 million people visited Haynoticia.es to read the story, it racked up more than 250,000 interactions on social media, and at least one genuine newspaper republished the article:

"2 Galician monkeys arrested for putting marijuana in the censer." Maybe you have seen it on your Facebook wall, or you have come across it on WhatsApp group. Maybe, even, someone told you about it in a face-to-face exchange at the coffee maker. Some have even seen it in the serious news media (e.g., an Argentine online newspaper, a Mexican TV station. It was one of the most viral topics of the week, racking up more than 250,000 interactions on social media networks. Those who bothered to click on the headline (at least a few did, we're all in such a hurry) found three short paragraphs explaining that the altar boys decided "during the New Year's Eve party" to buy "half a kilo of marijuana" to put inside the censer of the cathedral of Santiago last January 6. They spent the night in custody and were released without charge, although they were fired as altar boys. "Surely people have left the cathedral happier than ever," said the boys.

In the social media networks, many people celebrated the joke, others laughed thinking that it had really happened. Some were offended, because there is always someone who is offended. And thanks to all of them, to the website that published it, Hay Noticia, saw their server crash after receiving two million visits in a single day.

The story likely reached American audiences when it was published in English on 11 June 2018 on the entertainment web site ThereIsNews.com. Both Haynoticia.es and Thereisnews.com carry disclaimers labeling their content as fiction:

El site "Hay Noticia" (https://haynoticia.es) (en adelante denominado con sus siglas HN) es un site de humor cuyo fin es el entretenimiento.

El contenido de HN es ficción y no se corresponde con la realidad.

The site "There is news" (https://thereisnews.com) (hereinafter referred to as TIN) is a humor site whose purpose is entertainment.

The content of TIN is fiction and does not correspond to reality.

The report about the altar boys' being arrested is a completely rooted in fiction, but the featured image truly does show the relatively huge censer at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, which is more than 5 feet tall and swings through the church via a pulley system:

Traditionally, a handheld censer is used during Catholic Mass to burn incense as an "oration to God" and as part of rituals in the Orthodox religion. Historically, the incense also served to mask the smell of tired and unwashed pilgrims who crowded into the pews. It was also believed to have a preventative effect against plague.

But when a cathedral is the size of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Spain—which has a capacity of 1,200 people—an altar boy swinging a mere incense burner won't cut it. That's where the Botafumeiro comes in. At 5.25 feet tall and with a reported weight of between 110 to 352 pounds, this thurible is one of the largest in the world.

The cathedral has used a swinging censer since the 11th century. Its size necessitates the use of a rope and pulley system, its current one having been installed in 1604. At a cost of about 450 euros per "performance," the Botafumeiro isn't swung at every mass. When it's brought out for special occasions, it requires eight red-robed men called tiraboleiros to swing it. It can reach heights of 69 feet at the top of its 213-foot arc between the ends of the cathedral. It can reach its maximum height after about 17 cycles, which requires roughly 80 seconds of swinging.


Hay Noticias.   "Detenidos 2 Monaguillos Gallegos Por Meter Marihuana en el Botafumeiro."     5 December 2018.

Atlas Obscura.   "Botafumeiro."     Retrieved 6 December 2018.

Gosalvez, Patricia.   "Marijuana in the Botafumeiro, Can a Joke Be 'Fake News?'"     El Paiz.   15 January 2018.

There Is News.   "Two Altar Boys Were Arrested for Putting Weed in the Censer-Burner."     11 June 2018.

Dan Evon is a former writer for Snopes.