ROME – Charged with sexually abusing at least six underage girls, the head of a lay Catholic association in southern Italy considered by his devotees to be the incarnation of an archangel, who’s scheduled to go to court Feb. 18 for a preliminary hearing, has asked for an expedited trial.

“Often this is a decision that we can describe as a media strategy,” said Tommaso Tamburino, who represents four of the six alleged victims, in a phone interview with Crux on Feb. 5.

“It’s a decision often made by someone who wants to give the impression to the public opinion to have independently chosen to go to trial,” he said. “It’s a way of saying that [Capuana] himself wants justice and wishes to go to trial quicker.”

Under Italian law, the decision to ask for an expedited trial can only come from the accused party and not from a judge. According to Tamburino, it’s often a way of trying to persuade the public that since an indictment is inevitable, Capuana can act as if the decision to go to trial is his own instead of the judge’s.

Defense sources contacted by Crux said they didn’t want to discuss the case ahead of the trial.

Piero Alfio Capuana, 74, is among the founders of the Catholic Culture and Environment Association (ACCA) near Catania, Sicily, which counts almost 5,000 followers, many of whom consider him to be the reincarnation of the Archangel Michael.

A Crux investigation found that the association had been flagged by the Vatican as well as the local diocese of Acireale in Sicily over 40 years ago for “deviations of a doctrinal and moral character” and “true scandals.”

Capuana was arrested in August of 2017, after an investigation by local police found charges he had sexually abused at least six underage girls to be credible.

Last summer, Capuana was allowed to leave prison and return to his home town of Motta Sant’Anastasia in Sicily. ACCA became once again active in the territory, promoting its charitable initiatives on social media.

The mother of one of the alleged victims, who wishes to remain anonymous to protect her daughter’s identity, said she was “devastated” by news that Capuana was once again free to roam the small town, but optimistic about the legal proceedings.

“I think it’s better this way, because at least we can hurry up,” she told Crux in a phone interview Feb. 5, “even though I think he did this for public opinion.”

“I want to believe that justice will be done,” she added.

According to Tamburino, an expedited trial “may be a good thing, because a trial that would have otherwise started after a difficult and long preliminary hearing will instead begin immediately.”

The preliminary hearing, he said, could have lasted up to six or seven months in the Italian legal system, but if the judge accepts Capuana’s demand there could be a trial as soon as July.

Capuana’s three female collaborators Fabiola Raciti, Rosaria Giuffrida and Katia Concetta Scarpignato, who were among the group’s inner circle known as the “12 Apostles” and allegedly responsible for encouraging girls to perform sexual favors for Capuana, are also expected to begin their trial on Feb. 18.

The three women are charged with allegedly convincing the girls that Capuana’s sexual advances were “love from above” and organized so-called “turns” for when the young women were supposed to meet with the accused.

The defense for the three women has also asked for an expedited trial.

Despite changes taking place so close to the hearing, Tamburino is very confident that the outcome will result favorably for the alleged abuse victims.

“I feel very encouraged ahead of these proceedings,” he said, “we don’t have any doubts, and the guilt of the accused is already evident from the police investigation.”

“To me, the trial is already over,” he added.

Judge Simona Ragazzi has not yet announced a decision as to whether she will allow Capuana and his three alleged accomplices to have an expedited trial or attend the preliminary hearing on Feb. 18.

Other people charged with aiding and abetting a criminal conspiracy also will be present at the hearing. These include regional councilor Domenico Rotella, who is also Giuffridda’s husband; Father Orazio Caputo, charged with warning ACCA members of the police investigation; and Salvatore Torrisi, a former president of ACCA.

“The strength of these girls took the lid off a pot filled with horrible things, and it’s a testament to their courage,” Tamburino said.