ROME – A Catholic priest was among at least 68 people arrested May 15 in the southern Italian region of of Calabria and accused of extortion, illegal arms possession, fraud, and association with the local mafia.
The victims are migrants, who were exploited and mistreated by the very organizations set up to protect them. Criminal organizations have been controlling the Sant’Anna migrant center, the largest in Italy, holding up to 1500 people.
Operation “Jonny” was conducted by Italy’s three main police forces – Polizia di Stato (the civilian state police), Guardia di Finanza (the finanical police), and Carabinieri (the police branch of the military) – and it aimed to dismantle the racket led by the Arena clan, part of the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate.
“Today’s operation confirms that where there is power or money the ‘Ndrangheta pops up in order to exploit the needs even of the desperate,” said Nicola Gratteri, chief prosecutor of Catanzaro, Calabria’s capital.
The events took place at Isola di Capo Rizzuto, a small commune in Calabria, a region that is notably under the influence of the ‘Ndrangheta, considered one of the most powerful and violent criminal organizations in the world.
The Arena clan allegedly has been siphoning off state funds destined for migrants since 2009. According to the prosecutor’s office. about one third of the allocated $109 million ended up in the pockets of the Arena clan and their cronies.
Among the 68 imprisoned are the two main coordinators of the constant flow of migrants from Africa and the Middle East in the region.
Father Edoardo Scordio is the founder of the Confraternity of Mercy, which was established 25 years ago to cater to the needs of migrants, and runs the migrant center.
Though Scordio entertained friendly relations with the law enforcement in the area, he has been known to officiate at important religious events for the Arena clan.
Reports show that he received $145,000 for “spiritual services” this year alone.
Leonardo Sacco, vice president of the Confraternity, is the number two in the scheme.
Despite the drop in tourism in the Calabria region, Sacco’s boating company has been thriving, earning more than $1 million this year.
Sacco won the public funding for the care of migrants in the area, receiving around $24 million.
He also formed a capital company, the Miser Inc, which ironically speaks of the war against the ‘Ndrangheta in its budget, calling for a “prevention of mafia infiltration anywhere there might be a risk.”
Since then Sacco and Scordio have been buying expensive properties in the region, as well as investing in airlines and news agencies.
“The priest, the governor, and the Arena (clan) fatten on the skin of these poor people and buy theaters, villas, and whatever,” Gratteri said.
The prosecutor went on to make practical examples of how the money was used: If 500 meals were needed for the migrants at the center, the organization would serve only 300, keeping the money saved for themselves. Grattieri added that most of the food offered was only fit “for pigs.”
The investigation shows that beyond the extortion and embezzlement from the migrant center, the Arena clan also participated in many activities tied to gambling.
Operation “Jonny” takes place in the midst of allegations that NGOs are cooperating with human traffickers off the Libyan coast in order to bring the largest number of migrants into Italy possible.
According to the EU border patrol agency Frontex, the care of migrants in Italy and in Europe has grown to become a multi-billion dollar business.
Recent discoveries show a tie between some of the Doctors Without Borders boats in the Mediterranean and human traffickers.
Asked about this issue on his return flight from Fatima in Portugal, Pope Francis took a cautious approach in line with other pronouncements by Church leaders in regards to the allegations.
“I know there is an issue and the investigations are moving ahead,” the pope said. “I hope that they continue and that the whole truth comes out.”
The Catholic Church and NGOs that cooperate with the Vatican have remained, so far, unscathed by the allegations. But the recent events in Calabria shed light on the unhappy tie between Catholic institutions and criminal organizations.