ROME – In a case that raises questions about how an association proclaiming itself Catholic and meeting in a parish could escape Church oversight for decades, a Nov. 4 preliminary hearing in a trial of the group’s leader on sexual abuse charges featured testimony from three of his alleged female victims.

Pietro Alfio , 73, has been under arrest since Aug. 2, when an investigation called ‘Operation 12 Apostles,’ conducted by police in Sicily, uncovered a deep web of political, ecclesiastic and judicial ties that allegedly allowed Capuana to carry on abuses within the lay-led ‘Culture and Environment Catholic Association,’ or ACCA.

The group is listed as a ‘civil association’ and has up to 5,000 followers, who still meet in the little-known municipality of Aci Bonacorsi, located inside the Diocese of Acireale on the Italian island of Sicily.

By all accounts, Capuana was a charismatic and charming personality, referred to as ‘Archangel’ by his disciples.

During the preliminary hearing, local reports say that Capuana, wearing blue trousers and a light-colored shirt, “dragged himself” into the courtroom, looking thin and weary and accompanied by four armed penitentiary guards.

The hearing was presided over by the magistrate in charge of preliminary investigations, Anna Maria Cristaldi, and took place behind closed doors.

Three girls, one of them still a minor, took to the stand to testify before the judge, accompanied by their lawyer Tommaso Tamburino. Capuana was not allowed to see the witnesses as he stood behind bars, with a wooden screen hiding the witnesses in order to protect their identity. After the hearing, the girls exited through a back door.

Capuana was silent though most of the hearing, except for the few times he muttered indignantly at the accusations before being reprimanded by the judge.

Though the hearing was secret, the pre-trial detention order for Capuana, obtained by Crux in collaboration with local media outlet Laspiapress, revealed the grisly details discovered during the police investigation, including wiretaps of conversations among the alleged perpetrators.

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Three other leaders in the community – Fabiola Raciti, Rosaria Giuffrida and Katia Concetta Scarpignato – also face charges, and are currently under house arrest. 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, calling those acts “pure love” and “love from above.”

The women are also accused of organizing “schedules,” according to which the 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.

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.

Pre-trial hearings take place before a criminal case goes to trial and their aim is to determine what evidence should be admitted or not and who can or cannot testify. The witnesses answered questions by the judge, the prosecutor and the defense, Mario Brancato and Giada Taccia, the lawyers of Capuana and the three women.

Once the three hearings are completed, the case will move on to criminal court.

The first break took place at 2 p.m. after two of the girls spoke before the judge, and the last victim gave her witness account in the two remaining hours. Huddled outside the door of the courtroom, family members of the victims and friends and acolytes of Capuana waited for news.

As the time went by, tensions rose among the visitors and the phrase “Pieces of s**t!” was heard echoing down the halls. The Carabinieri, an Italian military police force, intervened before the altercation turned to blows.

The defense has been insisting that Capuana is too sick and old to be sent to prison, and should be placed under house arrest. The prosecution, in turn, has directed its attention toward the three ‘Apostles’ who helped ACCA’s former leader carry on with the abuses.

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Giuffrida is the wife of former provincial councilor and locally known politician Domenico ‘Mimmo’ Rotella, and she is accused of organizing the 24-hour schedules at Capuana’s houses in the towns of Motta Sant’Anastasia, Fondachello di Mascali and Bronte.

The other two women, Raciti and Scarpignato, were responsible for convincing the girls that the sexual acts were of a mystical and religious nature, forcing them to write letters declaring their love for Capuana and telling them that they would go to hell if they did not satisfy him.

Also currently under investigation are the politician Rotella, Catholic priest Father Orazio Caputo, and Salvatore Torrisi, former head of ACCA, who are suspected of “aiding and abetting.”

One of the mothers of the victims allegedly told Caputo about the police investigation concerning the abuses during confession, and according to local police the priest referred the information to the ‘Apostles’ of ACCA.

In a statement dated August 9, the Diocese of Acireale said that following the “horrific details” emerging in media reports concerning events that took place in ACCA, Bishop Antonino Raspanti 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.”

However, reporting by Crux shows that although the Diocese of Acireale attempted to bring the ACCA to heel in the late 1970s, the group essentially ignored orders from the local bishop, even continuing to meet in the same parish in Aci Bonacorsi.

Although a series of bishops were aware of reports of abuse, dubious spiritual practices, and other anomalies surrounding the group, no further action was taken, including a public warning that the group had no affiliation with the Catholic Church.

“Let’s put it this way: The process in the Church for dealing with lay people has got no teeth,” Father Francis Morrissey, a Canadian expert on canon law, told Crux.

During the course of the week, the criminal court in Sicily will decide whether Rotella, Caputo, and Torrisi should also be placed under house arrest and face charges. On Nov. 9, a second pre-trial hearing will take place, where three more girls will testify against Capuana.