SÃO PAULO – A city council member in São Paulo has announced plans to subpoena a well-known priest and human rights advocate whose work has been praised by Pope Francis before a panel investigating homelessness in the Brazilian city, publicly referring to the priest a “pimp of misery.”

Father Julio Lancellotti is the Vicar for the Homeless in the Archdiocese of São Paulo and has been working for decades in a region known as “Crackland,” an area in the city’s central district where hundreds of addicts spend day and night smoking crack.

In October 2020, Pope Francis praised the 75-year-old cleric in a phone conversation, saying he’d “burned his life for the poor.”

Nonetheless, Lancellotti is also a sometimes controversial figure in Brazil, blamed by some for encouraging lawlessness among the homleless population. On Jan. 3, right-wing city council member Rubinho Nunes told the Brazilian press that he had secured 30 votes among his colleagues, two more than the minimum required, in order to launch an immediate investigatory committee to examine homelessness in the city, including Lancellotti’s role.

Some council members, however, reportedly backed off the following day, leaving it unclear at the moment if the inquiry will begin in February as Nunes initially indicated.

Nunes accuses nongovernmental organizations and activists who operate in Crackland of exploiting the addicts’ situation, and his main target is Lancellotti.

“There is a so-called ‘misery mafia’ that profits from the good faith of the people and this is neither ethical nor moral. Fr. Julio is a real pimp of misery in São Paulo,” he told newspaper O Globo.

Nunes argues that Lancellotti, along with NGOs he’s identified as targets of the probe, only distribute food and hygiene kits for the homeless and fail to effectively combat their addiction. In his opinion, they continue the problem rather than solving it, while they “politically profit from the chaos in Crackland.”

“The inquiry committee I’m launching in São Paulo’s city council will investigate all that misery mafia that perpetuates itself in power through left-wing NGOs,” Nunes said on social media.

The city council member is a lawyer and was one of the founders of Movimento Brasil Livre (“Free Brazil Movement,” known as MBL), a right-wing organization that became notorious for promoting mass protests against former President Dilma Rousseff, who ended up being impeached in 2016.

In 2020, MBL members allegedly tried to frame Lancellotti. According to the Brazilian magazine Piauí, two former members of the group claimed that a state legislator at the time, Arthur do Val, led an operation to falsely charge Lancellotti with sexual exploitation.

Do Val’s assistant, Guto Zacarias, supposedly created a social media account of a fictitious 16-year-old teenager and got in touch with Lancellotti. A video was produced and sent to the police. It showed that messages of sexual nature were allegedly exchanged with the priest. The operation was carried out, according to the report, in Rubinho Nunes’s office.

Do Val gave a number of interviews at the time saying he was about to “unmask Fr. Lancellotti.” He would frequently define the priest as a “pimp of misery.”

Former MBL members who revealed the scheme said the social media clip had been manipulated, and the police decided not to launch an inquiry on Lancellotti.

In response to the new investigation, Lancellotti issued a statement on social media on January 3 saying that he is not a member of any NGO, and that his works are carried out as part of his role in the Church.

He told Crux that he was “stunned” by Nunes’s announcement.

“Two auxiliary bishops manifested their solidarity to me, as well as many groups of lawyers,” he said.

A social media campaign is being promoted to give support to Lancellotti. Dozens of artists and political leaders criticized Nunes and lauded the priest’s work. The groundswell included Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who posted on X that Lancellotti’s efforts are “essential to give some aid to the neediest ones.”

Church members also expressed their solidarity.

On Jan. 3, the Archdiocese of São Paulo issued a statement in which it asked why someone wants to “promote an inquiry committee against a priest who works with the poor, precisely at the beginning of an electoral year.”

Later in 2024, Brazilians will elect new city mayors.

“Fr. Julio is not a city council member nor a Congressman. He is the Archdiocese of São Paulo’s Episcopal Vicar for the Homeless and performs the fundamental duties of coordinating, organizing, and promoting several pastoral services to attend, welcome, and take care of homeless people in the city,” the statement said.

The archdiocese declared itself “perplexed” with the news regarding the inquiry committee.

Father Marcos Augusto Mendes, who leads the Bishops’ Conference’s Homeless Pastoral Ministry, told Crux that “the far-right despises social inclusion efforts done by any organization.”

“The far-right wants to keep profiting from the privileges it has been having since colonial times in Brazil. The denunciation of this system’s racism, misogyny, and homophobia is urgent,” he said.

Father Rodrigo Schüler de Souza, a member of the group “Priests against Fascism,” told Crux that “Fr. Lancellotti is being politically targeted due to the causes he stands for.”

“His pastoral work displeases many people because he unmasks the prejudice against the poor that exists among several right-wing politicians and fundamentalist religious leaders,” Schüler said.

In the opinion of Father José Francisco dos Santos, who heads the Franciscan Social Action organization (known as SEFRAS in Portuguese), an entity that distributes food for the homeless in São Paulo and other cities, “the far-right is interested in occupying Crackland.”

“We still don’t know for sure what the interests of the far-right in that district are. At the beginning of the year, Governor Tarcísio de Freitas tried to move the palace to the region. It’s about urban lands,” dos Santos told Crux.

“Crackland” is located in the geographical center of the city, a zone of potentially immense real estate value that has been targeted by a number of developers over the past decades. For many in the city, crack addicts are nothing more than undesirable people who should just be taken out of the area.

“If you walk with those who are despised and humiliated, you’ll be equally despised and humiliated. That’s the natural consequence of our work,” Lancellotti said.