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ROME – On Tuesday police in the Tuscan city of Prato announced that they had placed Italian Father Francesco Spagnesi under house arrest for the sale and import of drugs, including cocaine and GBL, a date rape drug.
Spagnesi, 40, until Sept. 1 was pastor of Annunciation parish in Prato. He was relieved of his duties as pastor and ordered to take a year sabbatical by his bishop, Giovanni Nerbini, who claims to have been partially aware of Spagnesi’s struggles but did not know the full extent of the situation.
He was also relieved of his involvement with the Archconfraternity of the Merciful, a volunteer organization.
News of the order for Spagnesi’s house arrest was announced during a Sept. 14 press conference convened at the Public Prosecutor’s office.
Investigations into him began in August after the arrest of another Prato citizen named Alessio Regina, who is also under house arrest and who was found to be in possession of GBL, also called “liquid esctacy”, which is often used consensually to enhance sexual performance, but which has also garnered a more nefarious reputation as a preferred drug in date rapes.
In the course of their investigation into Regina, Prato police discovered ties to Spagnesi, who was placed under house arrest Tuesday as a precautionary measure while officers continue their inquiry.
According to police investigations, the GBL was ordered online and imported from the Netherlands, and an undisclosed amount of cocaine was obtained through local suppliers. The drugs were then sold to guests invited to a specific house in Prato for parties involving sex and drugs.
Some 200 people have been linked to the case, including some professional criminals. So far, 15 people have admitted to taking part in the Prato parties.
According to the indictment, both Spagnesi and Regina attended the parties with another guest, who has no ties to Spagnesi’s parish, but was contacted through a dating site.
Police also found that the money Spagnesi used to purchase the drugs came from his parish’s financial resources, including offerings made by the faithful during Mass. The prosecutors’ office believes the sum to be in the tens of thousands of euros.
In a brief, 2-minute video message posted to the Prato Diocese’s website following Spagnesi’s arrest, Nerbini voiced “great sorrow” at the news, and pledged his “full collaboration,” and that of the diocese, in the ongoing investigation.
Nerbini said he had been aware that Spagnesi was struggling for some time, even at a psychological level, and had tried to help him, but had no idea there was a drug problem.
“At the beginning the problem wasn’t at all clear,” Nerbini said, but when he confronted Spagnesi about his continued struggles in April, Spagnesi confessed to having a drug addiction.
“When the problems that Spagnesi had become clear, I imposed psychotherapeutic treatment,” Nerbini said, noting that news of suspicious transactions at Spagnesi’s parish arose during his treatment with a specialist.
“He justified his interventions as charitable acts, things that are very common for a pastor,” Nerbini said, explaining that after the suspicious transactions were flagged, and also at the suggestion of Spagnesi’s therapist, he stripped Spagnesi of his administrative authority in the parish while the transactions were being looked into.
“Then, and for a long time, it remained a personal problem,” Nerbini said, adding, “I thought I was applying, together with a service to the truth and to justice, a service to charity. In my heart I wanted to save the person.”
In June, Nerbini relieved Spagnesi of pastoral his duties “so he could focus on healing.” That decision took effect Sept. 1, with Nerbini asking Spagnesi to take a year sabbatical to focus on his health.
Nerbini closed his video voicing hope “that this painful moment we are trying to live in charity and in truth can make us all stronger, more just, and more truthful, and that it can help us get back on the path.”
He voiced closeness to the people of his diocese, and especially to members of Spagnesi’s parish community, and asked faithful to pray not only for the local church, but also for Spagnesi and his struggles.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen