ROME – Pope Francis faced no small amount of blowback in Chile last week over a sexual abuse controversy that boils down to whom you chose to believe – victims of a pedophile priest accusing a bishop of knowing about the abuse and covering it up, or the bishop himself, who’s vigorously denied those charges.
The pope made it as clear as possible that he believes the bishop, which has, in turn, infuriated the accusers and sparked wide commentary around the world.
Now there’s another “Who do you believe?” dilemma waiting for him in his own back yard, in the Southern Italian region of Sicily, as another high-profile sexual abuse case heads to trial.
The drama pivots on the charismatic lay leader of the Catholic Culture and Environment Association (ACCA), Piero Alfio Capuana – called ‘Archangel’ by the group’s members – who was arrested in early August of last year for the sexual abuse of at least six underage girls and possibly more over the span of 25 years.
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.
Based on police documents, eyewitness testimonies and other sources, the two sides in the case appear to be readying to paint very different pictures when the trial opens sometime in February, in the Sicilian setting of Catania.
A recent program on the Italian TV network La 7 offered a preview of coming attractions, as Capuana’s defense lawyer, Mario Brancato and Tommaso Tamburino, who represents four of the six alleged victims, faced off in a joint interview.
(Crux was invited to take part in the program in light of our extensive coverage of the case in the past five months.)
Accusers will describe the 73-year-old Capuana’s alleged abuse in graphic detail and depict it as made possible by the complicity of his closest allies in the movement; defenders will suggest the dynamics of the house in which Capuana lived made it impossible for him to be alone with the minors and state that he’s a victim of slanderers who are after his personal wealth.
Tamburino insisted that his clients, who at the time of the abuse were between the ages of 13 and 16, with some as young as 11 years old, are standing by their accusations at great personal cost, having been shunned by their communities and hounded by the media. Brancato said he’s convinced those accusations are false, and stressed they’d been vigorously disputed at the preliminary hearing.
A pre-trial detention order for Capuana, obtained by Crux in collaboration with local media outlet Laspiapress, offers some insight as to the nature of the accusations.
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 three female collaborators are Fabiola Raciti, Rosaria Giuffrida and Katia Concetta Scarpignato who were among the “12 Apostles,” the group’s inner circle, and allegedly were responsible for encouraging girls to perform sexual favors for Capuana, calling those acts “pure love” and “love from above.”
The three women also face charges and are currently under house arrest.
Despite the testimonies, Brancato insists that the young women are lying. “I am certain that these declarations are untruthful,” he said.
The defense team, is offering witnesses from within the community such as a young woman, who according to statements of the alleged victims, was present and took part in Capuana’s sexual ‘rituals.’
She denied any instance of abuse.
“I was one of those people who constantly frequented Capuana’s home,” the young woman, who chose to remain anonymous, said during the broadcast. “For me they are like grandparents, I did the turns, because there was a flurry to visit him since it was nice.”
The “turns” refer to the schedules organized by the three female ‘Apostles’ according to which the girls were made to go to one of Capuana’s apartments. There the young women were asked to take care of cleaning the house, go grocery shopping and cater to the needs of the ‘Archangel.’
According to the alleged victims, it was during these turns that most of the instances of abuse took place.
“I also went (to Capuana’s house) outside the turns because I liked being there,” said the young woman during the interview, before changing her mind and stating that she never visited outside the schedule “because if my mother wasn’t present there were other adults, there was also the wife.”
Capuana’s wife has not been charged though the alleged victims have stated that she was present at the house during the abuse.
The defense has maintained that Capuana could never have had the opportunity to commit the abuses since he was never alone with the girls, despite the fact that the six young women state that they took place behind locked doors.
“It never happened to me, I have also been in his studio alone but the door was never closed as the girls say,” the witness continued. “To me it would seem rather difficult since in most cases I was in the schedule with these girls.”
“We were never left alone with him,” she said.
According to the young woman the alleged victims are “all fake people who are trying to speculate on good people,” and Capuana is a “good man” who is a victim of slander.
“To think him innocent and in jail…. it’s horrible,” she said in tears.
Many questions about the case remain unanswered.
For example, Capuana’s lawyer also stated that his client was too old and sick to perform sexual intercourse, but that doesn’t necessarily undercut the accusers’ case. In police testimony from the alleged victims, they claim that the “Archangel” struggled to bring the coitus to completion and often requested assistance from more than one girl at once.
While such matters are likely to loom large in Capuana’s criminal trial, seen through Church eyes there’s another major question lurking: How could the group led by Capuana have called itself “Catholic” and met in a local parish, with effectively no oversight or quality control from local Church officials?
A previous Crux investigation found that ACCA was challenged in the mid-seventies Archdiocese of Acireale for doctrinal deviations, including illegal exorcisms. An official reprimand by the bishop at the time did not result in any visible change within the group, which re-classified itself as a lay association, thus avoiding any control or condemnation for the next two decades.
Ultimately the Italian judicial system will have its say regarding Capuana’s guilt or innocence, but questions about what Church leaders did, versus what they should have done, may not be quite so ready to be resolved.