Italy’s ‘pusher priest’ suspended from ministry amid canonical inquiry

Elise Ann Allen
|Senior Correspondent

ROME – An Italian priest facing civil charges over the import and sale of drugs has been suspended from ministry and is undergoing a formal canonical investigation as he awaits a judicial ruling on whether he will go to prison.

Father Francesco Spagnesi, 40, is the former pastor of Annunciation parish in Prato, near Florence. He was arrested Sept. 14 after an investigation was launched by the city prosecutor’s office in August for the importation and sale of drugs, including the so-called “date rape drug.”

At the time, police also arrested another Prato citizen, Alessio Regina, who was Spagnesi’s partner and was found to be in possession of GBL, also called “liquid ecstasy,” which is sometimes used in casual consensual sex, but which is also known to be a preferred date rape drug.

According to police investigations, the GBL, as well as an amount of cocaine, was imported from the Netherlands after being ordered online and sold to people who attended parties at the Prato residence Spagnesi shared with Regina.

Spagnesi is accused of embezzling money from his parish to pay for the drugs, and he is also under investigation to alleged failure to disclose his positive HIV status to his intimate partners, including Regina and others who attended his parties.

RELATED: Italy’s ‘pusher priest’ investigated over failure to disclose HIV status

According to Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Spagnesi was released from jail following a request from his lawyers for a 3-year and 8-month plea bargain, which is awaiting the ruling of a judge in a hearing set for Dec. 7.

In an Oct. 1 communique, the Diocese of Prato announced that it is launching a lawsuit against Spagnesi for the embezzlement of parish funds.

After a careful examination of Annunciation parish’s existing budgets and archived documents, it is estimated that Spagnesi embezzled roughly 5,000 and 10,000 euros in 2019; 80,000 and 90,000 euros in 2020; and 45,000 and 50,000 euros in 2021, for a total of roughly 130-150,000 euros ($150-$173,000).

Prato Bishop Giovanni Nerbini announced the lawsuit during an Oct. 29 meeting with the parish council and the parish’s council for economic affairs. The meeting, which took place at Annunciation parish, was attended by Father Daniele Scaccini, vicar general of the Prato Diocese, who has been appointed as administrator of Annunciation parish after Spagnesi’s suspension.

According to a diocesan statement, Nerbini informed parish council members that the decision to launch a lawsuit was made due to the serious financial consequences of Spagnesi’s embezzlement.

Nerbini argued that the lawsuit was meant to send a clear message that no one can break basic rules of conduct with impunity, while protecting the image of the priesthood. He argued that the lawsuit is in no way contrary to the “duty of charity” spoken of in the Gospels, and nor does it seek to disregard any good pastoral work Spagnesi did during his time as pastor.

At the time, Nerbini also revealed that he had signed the canonical decree sanctioning Spagnesi, who is forbidden from celebrating the Mass and administering the sacraments.

According to Corriere della Sera, the Vatican tribunal conducting the canonical investigation into Spagnesi is already gathering materials related to the accusations against him, and the public scandals caused by his actions will likely be a key factor in determining his fate.

The most severe punishment Spagnesi faces is a dismissal from the clerical state.

Prior to Spagnesi’s arrest, Nerbini, according to Corriere, had already taken several measures against him.

Formal protocol requires first a verbal warning, and then two written warnings before a request for Vatican intervention can be made. Nerbini had apparently already given Spagnesi a verbal warning, one written warning and was preparing his second written warning when the scandals broke in September.

The court that will judge Spagnesi is still in the process of being appointed, and Spagnesi himself must now find a lawyer to handle his canonical case, as he cannot use the same legal counsel representing him in his civil proceedings.

Spagnesi reportedly has not yet been contacted by Rome regarding his canonical status, and is currently living with his parents, leaving the house only for psychological therapy sessions.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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