CATANIA, Italy — His followers called him the Archangel.

People would come from far and wide to see him, to speak to him, to touch him. The word of Piero Alfio Capuana, the 70-year-old leader of the “Catholic Culture and Environment Association,” or ACCA, a lay movement in the Church, was law.

In 2013, when Capuana called “Maria,” at the time only 11, into his study, she says she followed. When he locked the door behind her, she says she stayed. When he told her to sit on the desk in front of him, she says she sat, and when he ordered her to take off her shirt, she says, eventually, in tears, she obeyed.

“He had my life in his hand. Him. Everything. He had power over everything about me,” Maria, using a false name to protect her identity, told Crux in an April 22 interview.

“For me, he was important. He had that personality, that thing inside, that wasn’t human. When he would tell me, ‘Do this because it’s right,’ I would do it. Or when he said, ‘Don’t do this thing because it’s wrong,’ I’d obey without batting an eyelash,” she said.

The “Archangel” Piero Alfio Capuana, center with white hair, surrounded by his followers. (Credit: Courtesy of the accuser’s family.)

ACCA was born in the town of Aci Bonaccorsi, on the Italian island of Sicily, from the ashes of the “Lavina Group,” which was disbanded in 1976 by then-Bishop Pasquale Bacile due to what he described in a 1976 letter as “deviations of a doctrinal and moral nature.”

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The group then reformed as a civil association, and for more than the next forty years, Capuana exercised more or less uninterrupted control over ACCA and its members. He was revered as a saint, seen as the reincarnation of the Archangel Michael, and disciples believed the Holy Spirit spoke through him.

Capuana created a group of his most faithful, known as the “Twelve Apostles,” who former members say insulated him from attack as rumors and concerns about his conduct circulated, from hushed conversations in local bars to the corridors of power in the local Diocese of Acireale.

On August 2, 2017, Capuana was arrested along with three of his female apostles and charged with sexual abuse of at least six underage girls. He is now awaiting trial, and is under house arrest after spending six months in prison.

While Capuana’s guilt or innocence remains to be determined, Maria’s interview with Crux represents her account of what happened. She is among the former members whose accusations form the basis of the criminal charges against Capuana.

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When Maria joined the association at the age of eleven, she says she was “innocence personified.” Her family portrays her as a reserved and quiet girl, struggling at the time to form relationships.

At school, Maria said she experienced persistent bullying and was made fun of for having a support teacher, due to an undiagnosed learning disorder.

“They targeted me because I was fragile,” she said, looking down at her nails, painstakingly painted jet black. She recounted frequent beatings she endured from older students, both male and female, during the school year.

“After this experience, I closed in on myself completely and I was always alone,” Maria added.

Yet, something snapped in her one day. She’d had enough and took on one of her bullies, whom she describes as a tall girl with a big build. When she returned home, covered in scratches and bruises, she finally told her mother what she had gone through that year. Her family changed her school immediately.

“I didn’t want that to happen again somewhere else,” Maria said.

It was during this time ACCA came into her life. Maria’s mother had just lost her beloved brother to cancer, fitting the profile of lost and vulnerable people that former members say the Catholic lay group normally approached.

It was her mother who told the members of the group, who persistently asked that she bring in her two children, of the bullying that had deeply marked Maria.

“Piero [Capuana] took advantage of this, because it was my weak spot,” the girl said.

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Observers who’ve become critical of the ACCA say it had a specific modus operandi in bringing new members into the fold. Maria’s mother described it to Crux as “a shower of love.”

To begin with, they found a job for her unemployed son working with the group’s secretary. Maria’s dad, an honest and hardworking mechanic with thick oil perennially under his fingernails, was impressed by their kind words and constant offers of help.

“They treated me well, they showed me that they loved me,” Maria said, adding that members would also offer to pick her up at school and help out with chores.

Maria now says that from the moment Capuana laid eyes on her, he was obsessed. Knowing the causes that led to her shyness, she said, the spiritual leader presented himself with enormous insight into the life and mind of the young girl.

“He would tell me, ‘Unleash yourself from these chains and let the woman you are blossom’,” she said.

According to Maria, Capuana was also gifted in shifting responsibility for unethical acts to the Devil, who he said was responsible for all the bad things that would happen. Often, Maria said, he would use it to his advantage, saying that her timidity was “rotten” and “brought on by the Devil.”

That first year during a picnic, she said, Capuana kissed her on the mouth for the first time. Former members say this was nothing strange in the community, as they were accustomed – some even proud – to see their young daughters favored by the Archangel, who would expect to kiss and have a solo dance with each girl present.

After this event, Maria was placed into the “turns.” The Twelve Apostles, especially those currently under house arrest – Fabiola Raciti, Rosaria Giuffrida and Katia Concetta Scarpignato – would arrange schedules when young girls chosen by Capuana would spend the night at one of his three estates, often without the parent’s knowledge or consent.

According to Maria, more than thirty girls between the ages of 11 and 35 participated in the turns, and most were expected to sexually pleasure Capuana. The organizers, she said, would carefully assess whether girls were ready to take part in these schedules.

“They make you do the turns only once they know you’re in,” Maria said.

Today, many of the girls that Maria says took part in the sessions have run away or chosen to move ahead with their lives. Others, she said, remain avid defenders of Capuana as he faces trial.

Looking back, Maria now says the man who locked her into his study that day was addicted to power, a careful manipulator, and capable of leading others into performing his will.

She described the back-and-forth after Capuana closed the door behind her as follows:

“Do you know that there are many tests to pass in order to be with me?’” he asked.

“Yes,” Maria answered.

“What are you willing to do to be with me?” he asked.

“Everything,” she answered.

“Take your shirt off,” he said.

Maria said at that point she left the room in tears, not being able to do it. It was Raciti, she said, among the most loyal to Capuana, who coaxed her back by telling her that she herself had gone through this before, convincing her that this was a “pure act” and “love from above.”

Piero Alfio Capuana, center, surrounded by members of ACCA. Capuana’s wife, is in the yellow shirt on the right. (Credit: Courtesy of the accuser’s family.)

When Maria won a beauty pageant held every year during the group’s retreat, she said, it was clear she had become Capuana’s favorite. In an audio recording from one of the ACCA’s meetings, he claimed that “Maria is the only one close to me” while naming her head of the youth group.

“It was a descent. A precipice. That’s when it all began,” Maria said.

Being Capuana’s favorite, she said, meant that Maria would sit next to him during meetings, where he would make her put her hand on his leg. It was around this time, she said, that Capuana started manifesting a “possessive jealousy.”

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Former members say the self-proclaimed Archangel would have his favorite girls escort him to a bathroom at the “Cenacle,” the massive gathering place for the association in Lavina, where he would strip naked and have them wash him. His age made him impotent, yet, according to Maria, this would not halt his resolve.

“He would try in any way he could to get inside. In any way. But he couldn’t, because he was impotent,” she said.

Despite this, after one of the turns, Maria said Scarpignato visited her house to make her take the day-after pill without letting her know what it was for.

Maria did not live a normal teenager’s life. She did not have any friends, had frequent splitting headaches, and skipped the eighth grade entirely.

“I didn’t go much to school, because I was with him,” she said.

Piero Alfio Capuana, center, surrounded by young girls at the ACCA’s summer beachhouse retreat. (Credit: Courtesy of the accuser’s family.)

Inside the association, Maria said, there was also little sympathy, as she was perceived as the favorite and other female members competed for Capuana’s attention. At times, Maria said, the young girls were asked to pleasure him in groups.

Victims who spoke to the police describe a similar scenario. In testimony collected as part of the police investigation, his accusers say Capuana would ask girls as young as eleven to lick his nipples and then take turns pleasuring him orally.

The abuses were not just sexual. Many times, Maria said, he would slap her on the face, often publicly.

“He had a heavy hand. His fingertips, his fingers, were large, fat,” she said. She said he would also verbally abuse her, calling her a “prostitute” and “disgusting” when he felt wronged or betrayed.

No one was allowed to make phone calls to Maria in his presence, making her unreachable for extended periods of time.

“You were supposed to be a free woman,” she said.

After three years in the association, Maria says she rebelled. On a hot day at the end of July 2016, at a beach house in Fondachello di Mascali, near Catania, a surge of anger on the part of Capuana resulted in Maria going into a rage.

She explained that for some reason his guilt trips, his attempts to control her conscience, finally failed. Maria said she decided to call her mom to go back home. Finally, she told her mother of the abuse, and together they encouraged ten of the other alleged victims to speak to the police.

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The family left the association, and today Capuana awaits trial in the same home where he is charged with committing the crimes. His association is now in shambles.

As Maria tells her story of three years inside ACCA anew to Crux, her father’s knuckles turn white gripping the steering wheel of the family car. Struggling with her own sense of guilt, her mother utters one final question, which seems to be left hanging in the air.

“How was this possible?” she asks.

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