ROME – America may have been gripped by Watergate in 1973, but in Italy it was a boom time for charismatic religious movements, especially on the southern island of Sicily, where the famed Capuchin stigmatic and healer Padre Pio was stirring newfound religious zeal.

In that year, one ‘spiritual son’ of Padre Pio in Sicily, Father Stefano Cavalli, already famous on his own account for being a legendary exorcist and fervent preacher, founded a community called the ‘Group of Lavina’ in the small town of Aci Bonaccorsi, initially with only a dozen followers.

Over time, Cavalli’s group, formally registered as a lay association, changed its name to the ‘Culture and Environment Catholic Association’ (ACCA) and grew to nearly 5,000 members.

“Our model is not one of Spiritual Renewal,” one member said, but it does focus on evangelization and on bringing “the Word to those in need.”

Today, however, it’s neither evangelization nor spiritual renewal that have the community in a media and legal spotlight. Instead, it’s been enveloped in a sex abuse scandal that sees its leader, layman Piero Alfio Capuana, who took charge of the group after the death of Cavalli in 2015, facing trial for the alleged sexual abuse of at least six underage girls who were members of the association in the past quarter-century.

Crux, in collaboration with local media outlet Laspiapress, obtained the pre-trial detention order for Capuana, 73, and his three female associates, which revealed grisly details discovered by a local police investigation, including wiretaps of conversations among the alleged perpetrators.

Three other leaders in the community – Fabiola Raciti, Rosaria Giuffrida and Katia Concetta Scarpignato – also face charges. They were among the “12 Apostles,” the group’s inner circle, and allegedly were responsible for encouraging girls, usually between 13 and 15 years old, to perform sexual favors for Capuana, who dubbed himself the “Archangel,” and who called those acts “pure love” and “love from above.”

The women are also accused of organizing “schedules,” according to which girls were made to go to one of Capuana’s apartments and asked to perform sexual favors, sometimes with more than one girl at a time. If the girls were asked to spend the night, according to the police report, Capuana’s wife would be present during the abuse.

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“We are attacked on all sides,” a weeping member of ACCA, who for anonymity prefers to go by the initials A. G., told Crux in an interview after the charges against Capuana and the others became public.

“They consider us a sect, which we are not!” she said.

A. G. first visited the then ‘Group of Lavinia’ in 1980, but it was only two years ago that her daughter, a girl who only recently turned 18, insisted on going to the ‘Cenacle,’ the association’s main headquarters.

“I re-found my faith in that Church,” she said. “We are good people, and we see ourselves as one big family.”

A. G. added that the group includes people from all stations in life who attend Mass together every Sunday, bring groceries to the old and infirm and, of course, meet for their weekly Gospel readings at the ‘Cenacle.’

“No one laid hands on my daughter, my daughter was not brainwashed,”A. G. added.

According to a transcript of statements made by one of the alleged victims, the ‘Cenacle’ was the place where members would meet to discuss religious matters, but it was also the place where Capuana would present himself as an Archangel and his ‘acolytes’ – including young women – would sometimes kiss him on the mouth before the eyes of their parents.

“After the greetings, Capuana used to comment on the sacred texts with his rather odd ‘reflections,’ which raised more than one doubt in my mind regarding his apparent spirituality,” the transcript of one of the victims’ testimony says.

The ‘Cenacle’ was also where, according to the revelation in the detention order, Capuana would allegedly sexually abuse his victims, sometimes as young as 11 years old, coaxing them into taking off their clothes and pleasuring him by performing oral sex.

There was also singing and dancing at the ‘Cenacle,’ and, in the interview, A. G. said that Capuana had been able to convince her typically shy daughter to sing and perform in front of the congregation.

After his reflections, the 73-year-old man would often be escorted to a nearby room by two girls according to the detention order, but A.G. insisted that she only witnessed his wife and sometimes daughter escorting him due to Capuana’s ill health.

“He’s a normal person, an old person,” she insisted, and A. G. described Capuana as a man who always offered her “a comforting word” when she was sad – unlike, she said, “the typical priests who always want to poach.”

The official police detention order tells a different story, with Capuana fining members of the community up to $1,000 for supposed transgressions, and, on some occasions, even fining girls who refused to perform sexual favors for him.

During Capuana’s arrest, which took place August 1, police also found approximately $60,000 in his apartment, along with many letters that the young girls were forced to sign declaring their love for the ‘Archangel.’

At his apartment, “Capuana would call me and close me and himself in the study or bedroom, where he would have me take off his clothes,” an alleged victim says in the official document. “He would tell me to take off my clothes, he would touch my breasts and genitals, he had me touch him and masturbate him and we eventually started having sexual intercourse.

“I was 11 years old, and I’d been convinced by him and his (female) collaborators, as well as by other people who frequented the community, that those acts were religious, spiritual, and therefore I accepted them.”

The document also shows that young girls were asked to take a contraceptive pill in order to prevent pregnancies when following their “schedules,” and, at least on one occasion, an underage girl was forced to use the morning-after pill.

Members of the community and the police investigation appear to reveal two very different faces of Capuana.

For his devoted followers, their leader is innocent, a victim of greater and obscure forces.

“Could I be so stupid, so foolish to not see this underneath my nose?”A. G. says, adding that she is not afraid of bringing her daughter to the ‘Cenacle’ and that she continues to be a member.

“He always used to say, ‘Follow the word of the Lord’,”A. G. says of Capuana.  “I don’t believe that the Lord would have allowed these foul happenings to take place for 25 years.”

But for the victims, the fallen ‘Archangel’ was an ogre who used his three ‘Apostles’ to lure underage girls into his lair in order to sexually abuse them.

“These meetings continued up until I had the courage to run away from the community once I became of age,” one alleged victim says, adding that she still “remembers with disgust” the instances of abuse.

At present, no trial date has yet been set for the case against Capuana and the other defendants.