As the saga of a 5,000-member lay Catholic group in Sicily whose leadership has been arrested and charged with multiple counts of sexual abuse against underage girls continues to unfold, a puzzling question hangs over the story.

That question is: How could a group well known for practices that strayed from Catholic orthodoxy, including unauthorized exorcisms and a lay leader referred to by followers as an “Archangel,” as well as suspect behaviors that repeatedly led reasonable people to voice concerns, escape not only ecclesiastical but civil sanction for the better part of forty years?

The group is legally registered in Italy as a civil association, and never has been recognized, either by either the Vatican or the local diocese in which it’s located, as an ecclesiastical entity. On the other hand, it uses the word “Catholic” in its name, and, for its entire lifespan until the recent arrests, met in a Catholic parish.

More than a decade ago, a mother of one of the girls allegedly abused by that lay leader, Pietro Alfio Capuana, brought her concerns to the bishop of the Diocese of Acireale, where the group is located. According to a police investigation, she was told by the bishop that he was well aware of the rumors and suspicions, and had been for a long time, but was unable to act because the group was protected by “strong powers.”

Attempting to learn what those “powers” may have been surrounding the “Catholic Culture and Environment Association” (ACCA) sheds light not only on the group itself, but also on the unique confluence of political, judicial and ecclesiastical power in Sicily, along with a network of family ties that often shapes sympathies and allegiances.

In that sense, the story of the ACCA is a reminder that while the Catholic Church ultimately may point to another world, its life often is still heavily conditioned by this one.

An Archangel behind bars

On August 2, Capuana, the self-proclaimed “Archangel,” was arrested by the Italian police for allegedly persuading and coercing underage girls, between the ages of 11 and 16, into performing sexual favors for him. A pre-trial detention order charges that three female accomplices were responsible for convincing young women taking part in the ACCA that the alleged sexual exploitations were “acts of pure love” and “love from above.”

That something was off about the group was no secret to the local Diocese of Acireale. In 1976, then-Bishop Pasquale Bacile and his auxiliary, Giuseppe Costanzo, issued a severe condemnation of the group – known then as the “Group of Lavina,” for the local parish in which it met – prohibiting it from allowing laymen to perform exorcisms and using Church grounds for their meetings, which would often extend well into the small hours of the night.

The group, founded by a renowned local exorcist named Father Stefano Cavalli, who considered himself a “spiritual son” of the Capuchin stigmatic and mystic St. Padre Pio, ignored the diocesan orders and continued to roll along.

In 1979, Bacile died and Costanzo was reassigned as an advisor to Azione Cattolica, or “Catholic Action,” a widespread lay organization in Italy. Soon after, the “Group of Lavina” reinvented itself under its present name, the “Catholic Culture and Environment Association,” and for the next four decades, suffered no more outside scrutiny, either from the diocese or from the local police or judiciary.

Yet many in the small Sicilian town of Aci Bonaccorsi and nearby towns clearly knew what was happening inside the group, including members of the clergy.

According to a police report, for instance, Father Domenico Rapisarda of the nearby town of Mascalucia discouraged mothers from sending their daughters to the lay group because he had heard of Capuana “as the head of a sect, that had nothing to do with Catholic religion, who indoctrinated members to the point that it was said that sexual abuses were made by Capuana even against underage girls.”

On the other hand, the group reportedly was secretive and stand-offish with regard to outsiders, including a strong animus between its followers and other parishioners at the church in Aci Bonaccorsi where it met, and many may have been genuinely unaware of just how allegedly off-course it had gone.

One source close to the Archdiocese of Catania, which today is led by Archbishop Salvatore Gristina who was also bishop of Acireale from 1999 to 2002, said he was in the dark until Capuana and his three aides were arrested in February.

That source, who wished to remain anonymous, said it’s not surprising that a string of four bishops in Acireale never acted against the group.

“A bishop cannot do anything,” he said, when a group is not recognized by the Church and rebuffs any attempt to intervene.

This source, a member of the local clergy, also suggested that because Capuana is a layman rather than a priest, he’s more insulated from a bishop’s authority.

The source added that it’s hardly surprising that the neighboring Archdiocese of Catania, the metropolitan authority in the region, also didn’t intervene.

Bishops do “not stick their noses in other bishops’ business,” he said. He summarized the attitude of church officials this way: “We hoped it would die on its own, but it’s pretty resistant.”

Following the arrest of Capuana in August 2017, the current head of the Diocese of Acireale, Bishop Antonino Raspanti, released a statement 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 “new, horrific details” emerging in media reports concerning abuse that took place in ACCA, the bishop had 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.”

The Diocese of Acireale stressed that it had no ties with ACCA, except sending a diocesan priest to the headquarters of the lay group, known as the ‘Cenacle,’ to offer catechism lessons. On September 11, 2013, local newspapers reported that Raspanti celebrated a Mass honoring Cavalli’s 70-year anniversary as a priest and the ‘Group of Lavina.’

The event was promoted by ACCA.

Salvo Torrisi, who at the time was head of the association, was present and gave a speech praising the movement, and Raspanti joined him along with other town leaders and ACCA members of the ‘Cenacle’ to screen a documentary on Cavalli.

“Tutto in famiglia,” All in the family

While that background may help explain why the Church failed to act to curb the group’s spreading influence and power over a forty-year span, it doesn’t account for the failure of local law enforcement to take a hard look until the recent arrests.

For that, the unique role of blood ties in Sicily may provide at least a partial explanation. In that sense, a local character named Mariano Grasso is key to the story.

Grasso was a landowner and businessman with two daughters, Agata and Vera, married respectively to Pietro Sturiale and Vittorio Fontana. Fontana had been the chief magistrate at the district attorney’s office of Acireale for 20 years until 1987, when he was appointed attorney general in Catania.

His brother-in-law, Sturiale, applied for the vacancy in Acireale, which he obtained in 1987, taking charge of the administration of the environment and public administration.

“In order to become a magistrate in Acireale, it’s necessary to be the son-in-law of Mister Grasso,” a well-known Italian parliamentarian, Marco Pannella, said in an inquiry conducted by the Italian Chamber of Deputies in 1988.

At the time, the parliament was investigating whether Grasso had enjoyed the favoritism of local judicial authorities, headed by his sons-in-law, which allowed him to amass a considerable fortune.

In 1983, Acireale adopted a land-use plan that awarded Grasso up to 10 billion Italian liras, which, adjusted for inflation, amounts to approximately $1 million. In 1986, the construction of a road through lands belonging to Grasso in Acireale awarded him more than $100,000, even though Italian law provides that citizens are to take charge of the costs when the state takes land for public construction.

“In Acireale, there is a factual monopoly in the management of justice, for decades concentrated in the hands of one family, which has significant interests in the land that has enjoyed recognition and impulse by the local administration,” the parliamentary document stated.

Fontana, one of those sons-in-law, also was the president of ACCA from 1990 to 2000 and is the godfather of Daniele Capuana, the son of the “Archangel.”

That son, Daniele, is a former provincial councilor of Catania. He ran several times for various political offices within the Italian Democratic Party, obtaining a limited number of votes.

In 2014, he ran for mayor of Motta, a small Sicilian town not far from Aci Bonaccorsi, but lost by 13 votes against rival candidate Anastasio Guerra. In 2016, he handed in his resignation from his party, pointing to the fact that despite the 5,000 votes he was “continuously excluded, if not openly opposed.”

Italian news outlets have speculated that Capuana’s 5,000 votes came from ACCA, since that’s roughly the size of its membership.

At this point, there’s no evidence that the son was aware of his father’s alleged crimes. His high political profile and family ties, however, may help explain why local police and prosecutors would have regarded any intervention against a group led by his father as sensitive.

“We have to call him crazy”

A local official named Candida Fassiolo, who ran for councilwoman on the same party list with Daniele Capuana in 2014, was on friendly terms with the “Archangel” and his movement. Her name appears in the police report of the case, which includes a wire-tapped telephone conversation between Fassiolo and Fabiola Raciti, one of Capuana’s associates now under house arrest.

In light of accusations and police investigations against Capuana, Fassiolo told Raciti they must insist publicly on the fact that the “Archangel” was crazy, thus not a criminal, and needed to find other witnesses so that it would be “word against word.”

“This might help him to limit himself a little bit, because really it’s no longer the time, no longer the moment … I mean, at least on the outside, he should act in a different way,” Fassiolo said.

Fassiolo had been a regional minister until a police investigation resulted in the arrest of Capuana. She then resigned, but still remains a councilwoman in Motta.

Another one of Capuana’s female associates is Rosaria Giuffrida, also now under house arrest, who’s the wife of former provincial councilor Domenico Rotella, as well as a niece of Cavalli, the founder of the “Group of Lavina.”

Given all the foregoing, it’s reasonable to suspect that the nexus of access to local wealth and power, along with family loyalties, enjoyed by the Catholic Culture and Environment Association created a kind of insulation sheltering the group from any real oversight. That appears to have been the conclusion of the then-Bishop of Acireale, Pio Vittorio Vigo, over ten years ago.

That calculus, however, apparently has changed, as Capuana is now behind bars awaiting trial, and the movement he led seems to be in disarray, no longer meeting in the parish it called home for four decades.

A key question going forward, both for ecclesiastical and civil authorities, may be how to ensure that other groups engaging in similarly suspect behaviors aren’t afforded the same dangerous insulation in the future.