CATANIA, Italy – A keenly anticipated criminal trial in a case featuring the head of a lay Catholic association in southern Italy charged with sexually abusing minor girls was set to begin Monday, but it was delayed when three of his alleged accomplices claimed they had not been adequately notified.

The trial is now scheduled to resume in May. The accusers in the case cried foul, suspecting a defense plot to drag things out since the main defendant is 74 and could receive a lesser sentence if he’s found guilty closer to the age of 80.

“It’s a mockery of justice!” said one of the mothers of the alleged victims, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her daughter’s identity, in an interview with Crux Feb. 18.

Known as the “Archangel” by his followers, Piero Alfio Capuana, the leader of the lay “Catholic Culture and Environment Association” (ACCA) in Sicily, was charged with sexually abusing seven underage girls in August 2017. Three people, one of them a priest, were expected at court today to answer charges of tipping off Capuana and ACCA about the police investigation.

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Only regional councilor Mimmo Rotella, one of the alleged informants, came to the court in downtown Catania. He later claimed his innocence to reporters outside, saying that he knew nothing of the alleged abuses.

According to a pre-trial investigation of the leaders of the association, known as “Operation 12 Apostles,” Rotella learned that the police were looking into the case from a local priest named Father Orazio Caputo, who was informed about the alleged abuse by the mother of one of the victims during confession.

Wire-taps show that Rotella was aware that these conversations occurred under the confessional seal and attempted to defuse the situation.

“Certain people have made charges,” Rotella said in a phone conversation tapped by the police. “I had him tell me the rest… take into account that all this was reported during confession.”

The politician goes on to say he was “very concerned” about the situation, which risks “breaking the bank.” Rotella also added, according to the police transcript, that members of the association should prepare for an investigation.

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Caputo has avoided journalists and did not attend Monday’s hearing. The local diocese of Acireale began an ecclesiastical trial nearly two years ago to investigate Caputo breaking the confessional seal, but to date no action has been taken.

Salvatore Torrisi, president of ACCA since 1991, was also supposed to answer charges of aiding and abetting as well as obstruction of justice on Monday, but did not attend. In an April 2018 interview with Crux, Torrisi underlined the close ties connecting ACCA to the local diocese.

Torrisi stated that “all the bishops passed through our cenacle,” referring to the group’s meeting space, adding that it was Bishop Pio Vigo of Acireale (whose term ran from 2002 to 2011) who inaugurated the space. Torrisi added that current Bishop Antonino Raspanti wrote in a pastoral letter “that he was more often in Lavina than perhaps in all the other parishes.”

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The Diocese of Acireale released a statement in October 2017 stating that ACCA “was a civil association” with no official ties to the Church. In November 2018, a letter signed by Raspanti asked that all Catholic institutions “abstain or eventually interrupt” relations with the group.

On Monday Rotella’s defense team asked for an expedited trial, which was also previously requested by Capuana. The presiding judge granted the request.

Capuana’s three female collaborators – Fabiola Raciti, Rosaria Giuffrida and Katia Concetta Scarpignato, who were allegedly responsible for encouraging girls to perform sexual favors for Capuana – were also charged and are expected to go to court in May.

Giuffridda, who allegedly convinced the girls that Capuana’s sexual advances were “love from above” and “acts of pure love,” is married to Rotella.