ROME – As a controversy in southern Italy surrounding a lay association whose leadership has been accused of sexual abuse continues to unfold, one question that won’t go away is how the group was able to act with basic independence from the diocese in which it’s located over several decades.

“Do we obey the Gospel or the bishop?” members of the group asked in an article published in a local newspaper back in January of 1978 – and, by all evidence, they chose their interpretation of the Gospel, spurning attempts at ecclesiastical oversight.

As practices in the group, known as the “Catholic Culture and Environment Association” (ACCA), drifted further away from official Church teaching – which would later lead, allegedly, to the sexual abuse of multiple young girls – the local diocese, Acireale on the Italian island of Sicily, seems to have allowed it to drop off its radar.

Where things stand

The little-known municipality of Aci Bonacorsi, with a population of roughly 3,000 and located inside the Diocese of Acireale, was catapulted into the public eye this summer when the lay leader of the ACCA, headquartered there, was accused of sexually abusing minors for a period of over 25 years.

On August 2, 73-year-old Pietro Alfio Capuana was arrested for compelling at least six underage girls to perform sexual favors for him, and is currently in jail awaiting trial. Three female officials of the group were also charged with being accomplices, and they’re now under house arrest.

A provincial re-examination court in Catania confirmed August 24 that all four defendants will remain in detention, despite Capuana’s lawyer claiming that his client was too sick and old to be imprisoned.

According to members of the group, Capuana claimed to be the physical manifestation of an archangel, and even was referred to internally as the “Archangel.”

A ‘civil association’

Immediately after Capuana’s arrest, the Diocese of Acireale released a statement expressing “disconcert and pain for the victims,” but stressing that the “nature of the association is civil” – meaning, not having any affiliation with the Church.

In a second statement dated August 9, the diocese said that following “the new, horrific details” emerging in media reports concerning events that took place in ACCA, Bishop Antonino Raspanti has created a commission to examine all “ecclesiastic, moral and doctrinal” aspects of the matter.

Raspanti tapped his Vicar General, Father Giovanni Mammino, to head the panel, with the charge of “protecting all the faithful who were damaged or denied their rights.”

Once more the diocese emphasized the civil nature of the association, and also condemned “every form of ambiguity aimed at disorienting the faithful with regards to what can be considered religious and what instead belongs to the realm of perversion.”

In previous reporting by Crux, canon law experts stated that the diocese could not so easily “wash its hands” of this situation and pointed to several areas of canon law which state that local ecclesiastic authority has the duty to monitor lay associations “so that abuse does not creep into ecclesiastical discipline.”

The August 9 statement was the first time the diocese has publicly commented on ACCA since 1976.

When a bishop tried

The last prelate to voice concern about unorthodox practices in Aci Bonacorsi seems to have been Bishop Pasquale Bacile of Acireale, who headed the diocese from 1964 to 1979.

In February 1976, Bacile initiated a disciplinary proceeding and called the parish priest who headed the ACCA, then called the “Group of Lavina,” to “exercise pastoral obedience and caution.” The indictment pointed to odd rituals in the lay association, and attempted to impose measures to prevent them.

Bacile banned the group from occupying the parish church where it met late at night, although to this day the association still meets late in the evening and members dance and sing well into the late hours.

Bacile also prohibited its leaders from performing exorcisms without necessary authorization – which, despite having been founded by the famous exorcist and ‘spiritual son of Padre Pio’ Father Stefano Cavalli, the association never acquired.

“I visited Lavina to interview the kids of the ‘Cenacle’,” journalist Giuseppe Contarino wrote in a 1978 article, referring to the headquarters of the Group of Lavina.

“I was particularly interested in Piero (Capuana) and Giuseppe (Malafronte). Many strange things are said about them. It is said that they have the faculty of acting as intermediaries with certain archangels.”

The bishop later ordered the “Cenacle” and the so-called “12 Apostles,” who led the religious practices, disbanded. Soon after, the group would be reborn as the ‘Catholic Culture and Environment Association’ that still meets at its former headquarters.

Contarino reported that Capuana “seemed annoyed” with his presence at the church, and left without speaking to him. When he returned to the Cenacle, members of the association told him that they had been prohibited by the pope, at the time Paul VI, from speaking with any outsiders, and that he needed permission from the bishop if he wished to talk to them directly.

Crux has not been able to verify if such a papal order actually occurred, or whether members of the group simply wished to be rid of a nosy journalist.

Much to Contarino’s surprise, the bishop answered immediately to his request for an interview and sent then-Auxiliary Bishop Giuseppe Costanzo to sit down with him. The interview offered insight into what the diocese did then to try to bring the Group of Lavina back into the fold.

Founded in 1974, the group was among the many charismatic movements that swept across Italy in the ’70s. It quickly began to acquire fame thanks to the many miracles and exorcisms that were said to be performed in Aci Bonaccorsi.

“At this rate, in four years Lavina could record more miracles than Lourdes did in over a hundred! That would be ridiculous,” Costanzo told the reporter.

“Nor am I inclined to believe that the Lord would work such miracles through people who are so determinately attached to their ideas and mistakes, and indifferent to communion with the bishop and to his frequent complaints and clear directives,” he said in 1978.

These were the years of the Second Vatican Council, which encouraged growth of the lay role in the Church and emboldened many lay movements, including those of a charismatic nature.

“I would like to make a distinction between the (charismatic) groups that operate in Sicily and this one of Lavina. Those are in full communion with the bishop, this one isn’t,” Costanzo said at the time.

“There are countless people from all over who are pressured into joining this group, as there are many who have abandoned it once they realized that something is not right there.”

The auxiliary also asked the reporter what exactly was the “edifying role” played by the group in Lavina, and added that every effort had been made to bring the recalcitrant lay movement into line.

“I have often met with the leaders and parish priest at the diocese. I sent over some priests to help them eliminate the obvious doctrinal, disciplinary and behavioral deviations; I made sure that they were aided in understanding the word of God, which they presume to announce with incredible sureness and with serious interpretative errors,” he said.

“But those constantly renewed efforts punctually failed,” Costanzo added.

No rebuke or sanctions

After the ‘Cenacle’ was disbanded in the 1970s, nothing more appears to have been done by the diocese to control what was happening in the group, even when it reunited under the “Archangel” Capuana with the new ACCA brand.

According to a pre-trial detention order from the local police for Capuana and his accomplices, obtained by Crux, another former bishop of the diocese, Bishop Pio Vittorio Vigo, appears to have been aware of charges of sexual abuse taking place in ACCA for some time.

“In order to stop Capuana from continuing in the abuses,” the mother of one of the victims told prosecutors, “I visited the bishop of the Diocese of Acireale, who was at the time Pio Vigo. The prelate, having spoken to us, told us that he had been aware of the facts for more than thirty years.”

One canon lawyer told Crux the diocese was not powerless, even if the group defied efforts at control.

“The bishop can prohibit the use of any church building, prohibit any priest from attending its meetings or assisting it, and, under special circumstances, could give a penal precept to those who are part of it,” said Father Francis Morrissey, a Canadian expert on canon law, in an email.

Canon 1339 of the Code of Canon law states that a bishop could not only warn, but also rebuke “a person who is in the proximate occasion of committing a delict or upon whom, after investigation, grave suspicion of having committed a delict has fallen.”

So far, however, there’s no indication any such rebuke or sanction was imposed.