ROME – As its lay leader stands accused of sexually abusing ten women, including several who were minors, a powerful lay organization in southern Italy is revealed by records from four separate court proceedings, obtained by Crux, to have had a close but complicated relationship with Church authorities.

All the witnesses brought before the court between November 2017 and June 2018 confirmed that the lay Catholic Culture and Environment Association, or “ACCA”, based in the town of Aci Bonaccorsi, Sicily, met every Sunday for Mass at a local parish, followed by a meeting at the nearby headquarters, known as the “Cenacle”, where priests would also attend.

Following accusations in August 2016 against the lay leader of ACCA, Piero Alfio Capuana, who was called the “Archangel” by his followers, the local diocese of Acireale released a statement saying that there were no ties between the lay organization and ecclesial authorities.

Following that statement Crux has reported a paper trail of connections between the diocese and the group, dating back to the mid-’70s.

Diocese had warnings about lay group accused of abuse for 40-plus years

The following excerpts from the record of the hearings with 13 women who claim to have been sexually abused by Capuana offer deeper insight into the ties that connected the diocese to ACCA, raising concerns as to why the organization was able to act with no ecclesial supervision to this day.

(The names of the witnesses, many of whom under the legal age of consent, will remain anonymous to protect their identity. The numbers next to the witness is arbitrary and only used for clarity.)

All the witnesses described very few religious practices within the lay organization that proudly called, and continues to call itself, “Catholic”. Except Sunday Mass and praying the rosary, the only other visible example of ACCA’s religiosity was its proselytism.

At least one witness described that the targets of evangelization usually were comprised of “people in economic difficulty, or anyway with some sort of family issues,” and another confirmed that the goal was to “bring in as many people as possible.”

Many of the alleged victims presented themselves as also coming from situations of emotional or family trauma, which they claim made them easy prey to Capuana’s sexual advances.

One witness stated that there was no priest spiritually accompanying the members of the community, though they often participated at the meetings and events. In a portion of the hearing the judge tried to assess the Catholic dimension of ACCA:

Judge: […] what objectives did this community have?

Witness 1: It claimed to have absolutely Catholic objectives, that didn’t…

After a few moments of hesitation, Witness 1 continues by adding, “Catholic in the sense… they…they declared themselves basically to be prophets of a truth that in reality… it was a pretty uncomfortable truth actually.”

Judge: Where there also any priests within this community?

Witness 1: yes.

Judge: Who was it?

Witness 1: There was Father Cavalli, but he died, and…

Judge: Was there anyone else after Father Cavalli?

Witness 1: Yes, but honestly, I don’t remember the name.

She later added that the ACCA members “were all full of faith, so even the priests that were in there participated at our lunches, at our outings,” adding that priests were present every Sunday at the gatherings.

Father Stefano Cavalli, a “spiritual son” of the famous Capuchin stigmatic Saint Padre Pio, was the founder of ACCA until an investigation into his practices led by the local diocese forced Cavalli to withdraw in 1976, leaving the spiritual leadership of ACCA in the hands of his follower Capuana.

The bond of trust between the religious founder of the group and his lay successor was confirmed during the hearings.

Judge: You have stated that, in substance, Capuana presented himself as elected by God, as appointed by God, but were there ever priests or religious figures who confirmed this theory saying “yes, you must follow him because he is a special figure?” or was it just him giving himself these…?

Witness 2: Father Cavalli, let’s say, always confirmed Piero, he would say that… I mean let’s say he did … he said that… how do I explain?

“He always said that we had to listen to him,” she said.

One witness claimed that Cavalli would tell Capuana about what she discussed during confession with him, making him particularly well informed and keen to personal issues that she was undergoing in her life.

Cavalli died in 2015 at the age of 97. His funeral was celebrated by the entire community, and commemorated by the sitting Bishop of Acireale, Antonino Raspanti.

The most coveted celebration within ACCA was St. Valentine’s day, where only women of Capuana’s inner circle, his “warriors” as he called them, could participate. During these meetings, and those that took place at the Cenacle, Capuana would make his “locutions,” where he claimed to speak in the name of God, the Virgin Mary, the Archangel Michael and the Holy Spirit, witnesses recounted.

He would use his prophet-like stature within the group to compel the young women into pleasuring him sexually, saying that they were “possessed by the devil” or “had chosen the path of Satan” if they refused.

“He would say that [the sexual abuses] were purifying acts, that… that elevated toward the image of God, and I believed him until the end of time,” one witness said.

While witnesses confirmed that priests and religious were often seen in and around the lay group, with one claiming that ACCA even sent an exorcist to her house to liberate her mother from demons, Capuana did not adopt any kind of inappropriate behavior in their presence.

Judge: during the meetings that followed the Mass in this place near the church were there also religious?

Witness 4: Yes.

Judge: religious, in the sense that the priest who said the Mass would participate or…?

Witness 4: No, it was rare for Capuana to want priests because he basically did not like priests, I mean in the context of the cenacle, in the cenacle. In fact, he would have certain behaviors where basically he would go away, he didn’t let the girls touch him when there were priests and anyway there was no contact when there were strangers such as priests or bishops who sometimes came.

Reporting previously done by Crux shows that Capuana had been targeted by Church authorities in the past as a possible danger to the local faith community. His book, written under a pseudonym and detailing romantic relationships between an underage girl and an older man, was flagged by the bishop in 1981 and a priest was sent to oversee the association though no action was made.

Lay group’s tale one of exorcisms, power struggles and abuse charges

While the so called “Archangel” might have wished to avoid religious authorities, the association attempted to court the attention of the Church on several occasions, even by sending letters and messages to the Vatican.

One witness, who claims to have been among Capuana’s favorites, said that during an audience at the Vatican in January 2015 she, her mother and a member of ACCA went to present Pope Francis with a letter introducing the community with a picture of Father Cavalli and the Church of Maria Santissima Ritornata where they usually met.

Unpacking the ‘strong powers’ insulating lay group charged with abuse

These court hearings show that, according to witnesses, the participation of local clergy and religious within the association was more widespread than initially suggested by the Diocese of Acireale, and historic documents show that it had several reasons to keep its ties to ACCA confidential.

Furthermore, members of the group firmly believed to be within a Catholic organization, and the alleged victims claim that is was the religious undertones used by Capuana that led them to believe that what they were receiving instead of abuse was actually “love from above.”

“If one goes to Church, the speech of the priest is pretty comprehensible,” one witness said. “Instead [Capuana] adopted a certain confusion … not in the way he spoke, in the logical connection between words, that almost disoriented you if you stayed and listened.”

(Another article based on hearing records detailing further information concerning the alleged sexual abuse will follow.)