ROME – Sexual abuse scandals have dogged the Catholic Church this summer from Australia to Germany, with the latest coming in the small Italian town of Aci Bonaccorsi on the island of Sicily, where four members of a lay movement were arrested August 1 for conspiring to sexually abuse minors.

The lay movement in question was founded by a legendary local priest, Father Stefano Cavalli, who was a spiritual heir of Padre Pio, the famed 20th century Capuchin stigmatic and healer. So revered is Cavalli in Aci Bonaccorsi that the town’s central square is named for him.

According to the allegations, at least six young female members of the ‘Culture and Environment Catholic Association’ were coaxed into performing personal and sexual favors to its leader and Cavalli’s successor, layman Piero Alfio Capuana, who claims to be the physical manifestation of an Archangel.

Investigations began after a concerned mother found compromising text messages sent by her 15-year-old daughter to a friend discussing the instances of abuse and later warned local authorities.

The Catania police department began “Operation 12 Apostles,” referring to how members dubbed Capuana’s inner circle. The investigation uncovered 25 years of abuse within the movement, and led to the arrest of Capuana, 73, along with three women, Fabiola Raciti, Rosaria Giuffrida and Katia Concetta Scarpignato, responsible for recruiting the underage girls.

Wiretaps acquired by the police show that the women encouraged the girls, between 13 and 15 years-old, by saying that the sexual acts were actually examples of “pure love” and “love from above.”

They also organized “schedules” where the girls were made to go to Capuana’s home and, beyond feeding him and cleaning him as well as his apartment, they were also asked to perform sexual favors. Local media reports that the abuse sometimes took place with more than one girl at a time.

The police also found letters that the underage women were forced to sign, in which they professed their love for Capuana and gave their consent for the sexual acts.

According to investigators, the sexual advances were not limited to Capuana’s house but also took place at the headquarters of the lay association, called the ‘Cenacle,’ where members would meet in order to discuss religious matters.

Media reports from Sicily suggest Capuana would present himself to his acolytes as the reincarnation of an Archangel and preach to the community. The former bank-manager turned spiritual leader created a cult-like hierarchy, where he occupied the pinnacle of the pyramid.

After the initial allegations, more victims came forward discussing cases of abuse, sometimes dating back many years. Observers say that the religious fervor and manipulation within the group was such that mothers brought their daughters to the movement, even if they were aware of the practices being carried out within.

“Women who at the time were underage were victims of shameful acts, continuously,” prosecutors told reporters. They were “always surrounded by this veil of spirituality and divinity.”

During the arrest, which took place August 1, police found approximately 60 thousand dollars probably earned through the farm business run by members of the association, who also bought the products.

Yet there may be a more sinister origin to the rather large sum found among the leader’s possessions. The young women who refused to comply with Capuana’s demands were not only scolded for not doing God’s will, but were also fined.

Group associates were not asked to pay for membership but did give money in order to participate in various activities. During some of these activities, the self-dubbed ‘Archangel’ would dance with the girls and even kiss them on the lips before the eyes of their parents.

The community counts up to 5,000 followers. Cavalli was a well-known exorcist and priest at the sanctuary of Maria Santissima Ritornata in the Sicilian town of Lavina, near Aci Bonaccorsi.

Cavalli died in 2015 at the age of 97, leaving the community in the hands of Capuana and a dozen people who handle the daily affairs of the movement, the so-called “12 Apostles.”

Capuana also happens to be the father of Daniele Capuana, a former city councilman who also ran for mayor of the Sicilian town of Motta Sant’Anastia. Police have found no suggestion of any involvement by the son in illegal dealings of the movement.

The ‘Archangel’ recently declared himself innocent through his lawyer, who told the press that Capuana is “an old and sick person” and suffers from a severe form of diabetes that is “incompatible with imprisonment.”

As things go forward, one question may be who exactly in the Church is responsible for exercising oversight for such groups. Often independent lay movements can seem to fall through the cracks, accountable neither to the Vatican nor to the local diocese.

Though unfamiliar with the Sicilian situation, Irish Cardinal Kevin Farrell, Prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, told Crux in an email that in general “the oversight of communities is the responsibility of the bishop of the diocese,” unless they enjoy specific Vatican recognition.

In a statement dated August 2, the Diocese of Acireale in Sicily said that the “nature of the association is civil,” meaning it’s not an official Church group, and expressed “disconcertment and pain for the victims who were gravely tricked and hurt, as well as the many people who are confused and disoriented.”

The statement, signed by the rector of the seminary in Acireale, Father Marco Catalano, added that though a diocesan priest offered catechesis at the association’s headquarters, he did so “with no suspicion of the occult perpetration of criminal acts.”

The statement concluded with the diocese hoping that the court will bring forward its proceedings and establish responsibility so that “justice may be done.”

The Diocese of Acireale declined to give further comments.