CATANIA, Italy – During the first day of a criminal trial against the head of a lay Catholic group in Sicily accused of sexually abusing ten underage girls, the local Diocese of Acireale announced its intent to sue the association as a civil party “so that the truth may emerge.”

“This is an important fact,” said Tommaso Tamburino, the lawyer for four of the 10 girls who were allegedly abused. “It means that the Church believes it was slandered and suffered a great blow to its public image.”

“It’s important for us also that the Church contributes to give importance to this case,” he told Crux in a May 13 interview after the beginning of the proceedings.

Defense lawyers, however, were visibly displeased and vowed a “heated” challenge to any lawsuit.

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In August 2017, the lay leader of the Catholic Culture and Environment Association (ACCA), Piero Alfio Capuana, 75, was arrested under the charge of having sexually abused minors between the ages of 11-16.

Members of the group, which at its peak counted more than 5,000 members and is headquartered near Catania, Sicily, considered Capuana to be the reincarnation of the Archangel Michael who spoke to the Virgin Mary.

The judge, Ignazia Barbarino, agreed to postpone the first hearing due to what was described as “a notification failure” until October 14. She also agreed that to protect the identity of the alleged victims, the next hearing will take place behind closed doors.

Katia Concetta Scarpignato, Fabiola Raciti and Rosaria Giuffrida, three members of the ACCA hierarchy known as “The 12 Apostles,” will also stand trial with Capuana for allegedly helping him convince the girls that the lay leader’s sexual advances were “pure acts” and “love from above.”

Capuana and his alleged accomplices asked for an expedited trial in February and will therefore appear before for the judge in October.

All documents and depositions gathered at the pre-trial hearing have been officially accepted as a part of the trial, meaning that the alleged victims will not have to testify in court again.

Because the first hearing was postponed, the families of the alleged victims, seven associations against the mistreatment of women, and the diocese of Acireale were all able to present their requests to bring suit against Capuana and ACCA as a civil party, but will have to wait until October to have confirmation from the judge.

“With the intent of protecting the good of the Catholic faith, which the diocese holds and represents, it asked the judge to be a civil party in the aforementioned trial, to actively participate so that the truth may emerge,” a statement by the Diocese of Acireale read.

“While distinguishing these people [Capuana and the 12 Apostles] from the other components of the ACCA association and those who took part in its social and religious activities, it’s known that they had a key role by presenting the ‘community’ and its activities to diocesan authorities, to the Christian people and the entire society as a Catholic entity and apostolic work,” it said.

“If the accusations will be proven true it will be evident that such people have caused great damage to Catholics and the diocese due to the resulting scandal,” the statement said.

Capuana’s defense team was not pleased by the diocese’s decision to sue ACCA and its leaders, and promised “a heated debate” at the next hearing.

“We will have a lot to say about this,” the defense lawyer, Mario Brancato, told Crux May 13. “We don’t think that [the bishop] can in any way present himself as a civil party, because he was very tied to this association.”

In April, Brancato announced his intention to call Bishop Antonino Raspanti of Acireale as a witness to the trial to testify on “the behavior of the Church.”

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The lawyer told reporters his hope is that the bishop would speak about the Church’s strong ties with the founder of ACCA, Father Stefano Cavalli, a well-known Sicilian priest who considered himself a “spiritual son” of the famed mystic Capuchin friar Padre Pio.

“We had called [Raspanti] as a witness because he himself was present at the funeral of Father Cavalli and praised him as a great priest. Yet now he wants to be a civil party against the association created by Father Cavalli,” Brancato said.

“He needs to explain why he sent priests who reported that everything was alright and there was nothing wrong, and today he wishes to present himself as a civil party,” he added.

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Brancato expressed his intention to “strongly oppose” the Church’s position and said that there will be “many surprises” in the next hearing, in what is already a “very complicated trial.”

“We are presenting 114 witnesses” to speak in favor of ACCA, he said, adding that “the bishop is on that list.”

The mothers of the alleged victims present at the proceedings were happy to hear of the diocese’s stance, especially since they told Crux that so far, they have felt largely abandoned by the local church.

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“I am hopeful, and I was happy for how the day went, I was shocked by the news that the bishop wishes to bring suit as a civil party so it’s another source of strength for us, the fact that they haven’t left us alone,” a mother who wishes to remain anonymous to protect her daughter’s identity told Crux May 13.

“This is a beginning to believing once more that there might be someone who is trustworthy,” she added. “I won’t say I’m totally sold, but it’s certainly a beginning.”

At the same time as the trial against Capuana, another trial against key members of ACCA who are charged with aiding and abetting a criminal conspiracy took place across the hall. The former president of ACCA, Salvatore Torrisi, regional councilor Mimmo Rotella and Father Orazio Caputo are all accused of interfering with police investigations to protect Capuana and the lay group.

The judge will decide whether the three will be absolved or sent to trial, though according to Tamburino, “it’s more likely that they will be referred to trial.”

The court also accepted the families of the victims as a civil party in the proceedings, even though aiding and abetting normally sees the state as the only offended party.