ROME – Despite efforts by the local diocese to distance itself from a lay Catholic association in Sicily whose leader is charged with sexually abusing underage girls, last week the defense lawyer called the bishop to testify in court in May.

By calling local Bishop Antonino Raspanti to testify about “the behavior of the church of Acireale” toward the Catholic Culture and Environment Association (ACCA), defense lawyer Mario Brancato hopes to rehabilitate the reputation of the lay group, he told local reporters April 18.

The group’s lay leader, Piero Alfio Capuana, 75, was arrested in August 2017 for allegedly sexually abusing seven girls who were minors at the time of the incidents. ACCA was founded in 1974 by a well-known Sicilian priest, Father Stefano Cavalli, who considered himself a “spiritual son” of the famed mystic Capuchin friar Padre Pio.

“At the death of Father Cavalli, a founder of the community along with Capuana, the archbishop and other priests were present, and they praised the figure of Father Cavalli, who was also a favorite disciple of Padre Pio with whom he communicated constantly,” Brancato said.

The Diocese of Acireale released a statement shortly after Capuana’s arrest saying that because the group is a “civil association” it had no official ties to the Catholic Church and therefore the diocese was not called to exercise any type of oversight, despite the fact that the group met in a Catholic parish and advertised its activities in the official diocesan paper.

Members of the group believed Capuana to be the reincarnation of the Archangel Michael and that he spoke to the Virgin Mary in his “locutions.”

According to a police investigation, three women from Capuana’s inner circle – Katia Scarpignato, Fabiola Raciti and Rosaria Giuffridda – were responsible for convincing young women that Capuana’s alleged sexual advances were “love from above” and acts of “pure love.”

The three women are expected to stand trial on May 13, along with Capuana, to answer the accusations.

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The events that took place in the outskirts of Catania, Sicily, have had a significant ripple effect in Italian society, with various local television shows addressing the issue and asking for further clarification on the Church’s involvement.

“I wanted to investigate what [ACCA] was discussing and how it perceived the Church, how it perceived the sacraments, how it perceived the bishop,” Raspanti said in his first TV interview since the scandal broke in 2017, which aired on the Italian show La Vita in Diretta April 24.

“Surely, we learned things that we didn’t expect,” he added.

The bishop said that “many people were warned not to speak” to him and to “only go to confession with certain priests that they pointed out.” One of these priests, Father Orazio Caputo, is currently undergoing both a civil and ecclesiastical trial for allegedly breaking the seal of confession to warn ACCA members of the police investigation.

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“Probably, after the great clashes of 40 years ago with our curia, they externally – but only externally – bent to some general church principles, but it’s likely that there were also hidden practices that only those with access could attend,” Raspanti said.

A 2018 investigative report by Crux found that in the 1970s the local diocese and even the Vatican expressed concern over the hierarchical structure of ACCA and its leadership for “deviations of a doctrinal and moral character” and “true scandals.”

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Capuana, who spent about six months under arrest and is now free, says he has no current ties with ACCA. He’s awaiting trial “serenely,” Brancato said, and also said that his client has been the victim of a “media attack.”

“I had the feeling that the mass media had a common approach as if the defendant was already found guilty, while we are in a phase where everything must still be verified and ascertained,” Brancato said.

While many have called the lay Catholic group a “sect,” the lawyer stated that ACCA is “a religious association that does charity work, visits hospitals, assists the elderly.”

“There was no subjection toward anyone,” Brancato continued. “There is a charismatic leader, as there are many other leaders who are followed, like it happens in any other association.”

The defense team’s approach, Brancato said, will be that of discrediting the testimonies accusing ACCA and its leader, by calling more than 110 people, including the bishop, to testify against the girls who came forward with the accusations of sexual abuse.

“These girls who accuse [Capuana] had the opportunity, and it’s documented, to speak with each other and coordinate a common tack. A tack that is discredited by hundreds of witnesses of a different nature: We have 110 witnesses who we will call to trial to demonstrate the truth,” the lawyer said.

ACCA continues to be active in the territory near Catania and on social media, counting more than 5,000 followers.