CATANIA, Italy – Documents obtained by Crux show that both the Diocese of Acireale on the Italian island of Sicily and the Vatican were aware since the mid-1970s that a powerful lay organization whose leaders today stand accused of sexual abuse of minor girls was suspected of “deviations of a doctrinal and moral character” and “true scandals.”

Those charged with abuse are currently awaiting trial, and have strongly denied the accusations through their attorney.

Despite several failed attempts in the late 1970s to impose discipline, documents and interviews show the group continued to enjoy loose approval from a string of bishops in Acireale until criminal charges were lodged by civil prosecutors in August 2017.

Among other things, those documents, 79 pages in all, show that the “Catholic Culture and Environment Association,” formerly known as the “Community of Lavina,” was supposed to be barred from meeting on church grounds since February 1976, but it was allowed to continue doing so openly until last year when the charges were filed.

The documents, mostly correspondence among bishops, clergy, members of the group and Vatican officials, do not indicate any specific knowledge by Church authorities of charges of sexual abuse within the group.

However, there are repeated references to “psychological intimidation” and “psychological subjugation” of members, and an “excessive exaltation” of the group’s lay leader, Piero Alfio Capuana, who claims to be a reincarnation of the Archangel Michael. There’s also discussion of a novel written by Capuana in the early 1980s in which the protagonist, called “Peter,” carries out love affairs with underage girls.

A pre-trial detention order written by the Italian postal police (which conducted the investigation in 2016, since the initial incriminating evidence was found through social media) reports that in 2011, a family visited the then-bishop of Acireale to denounce a case of sexual abuse by Capuana of their underage daughter.

Despite repeated attempts, the diocese of Acireale has not replied to requests for comment by Crux. In an August press release the diocese, while expressing “pain and solidarity toward all the victims,” stressed that the association was “civil” and therefore not tied to the Church.

The interviews, research and reporting made by Crux over the past eight months document a long-standing and complex relationship between the Catholic Culture and Environment Association, or ACCA, and the diocese of Acireale. Similar recent scandals concerning lay Catholic associations, such as Sodalitium of Christian Life in Peru, whose leader was accused of sexually and physically abusing members, suggest there may be a hole in the Church’s “zero tolerance” policy in the case of lay-led organizations.

“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 in August.

Today, family members of the alleged victims, between 11 and 15 at the time of the abuse, are asking whether the diocese, or the Vatican, could have acted sooner to cut short the “odd happenings” at Lavina, given the information they had at their disposal for at least 42 years.

The Acireale documents

The first page of a letter written by Bishop Pasquale Bacile of Acireale to Father Stefano Cavalli dated February 2, 1976. In it, the bishop points to “true scandals” and docrinal and moral deviations within the Group of Lavina, later ACCA.

 The earliest document obtained by Crux dates back to July 1974, when then-Bishop Pasquale Bacile of Acireale writes to an unknown priest who had expressed concerns over the Group of Lavina. The group was founded by Father Stefano Cavalli, a “spiritual son” of famed Capuchin mystic and stigmatic Padre Pio. Cavalli created an active community around the Sicilian town of Lavina and was known for having a particular interest in spirituality and exorcisms.

In the 1974 letter, Bacile seems to downplay rumors of strange happenings in the group, saying that there’s “No cause for alarm,” and calls it “a fire of straw that will burn out and leave just a little smoke.” The bishop also wrote that “young people will get tired [of it] and leave.”

Two years later, however, the bishop’s tone changed. In a letter dated February 2, 1976, Bacile expressed concern over “deviations of a doctrinal or moral character,” and mentions numerous complaints against the group, saying “at times it’s a matter of true scandals.”

In the same letter, Bacile says he formed a diocesan commission to study the group and specifies that it must be considered “detached from the Church by all means.” He also gives 12 specific instructions to Cavalli, the most important being the order to the pastor not to “put at [The Group of Lavina’s] disposition parochial facilities (church, canon’s house, other facilities).”

This order was never truly followed, except for very brief periods of time. Former members of the group, including its former president, have told Crux that ACCA continued to meet in the Church of Lavina or on Church grounds until Capuana’s arrest in August 2017.

Parishioners at Lavina, concerned for the rumors and the “yelling that could be heard well into the small hours of the night” from within the church, wrote letters of complaint starting in the mid-1970s and today continue to have a strained relationship with ACCA.

In a letter dated December 20, 1976, the “Lavina Committee” wrote to public officials and Bacile denouncing Capuana’s “locutions,” where he would allegedly speak prophetically though the Holy Spirit, and the fact that he surrounded himself with what some described as “women of easy virtue.”

“They hold sessions, creating acolytes, especially adolescent girls, taking advantage of their innocence. It’s our understanding that several families now refuse to receive them, having learned the facts mentioned and their sacrilegious activity,” the letter reads.

Also, the parishioners at Lavina expressed annoyance at the lack of Church oversight of the Group. “We ask, why the ecclesial authority has still not intervened to unmask the diabolical and sacrilegious action by these unqualified gentlemen?” they wrote.

On November 7, 1977 the documents show the first indication that the Vatican was aware of the group and the concerns surrounding it. A letter signed by then-Monsignor Giovanni Coppa, Pope Paul VI’s assessor (later named a cardinal in 2007 and who died in 2016), asked Bacile for more information.

The Group of Lavina, attempting to defend itself, had written a letter to Pope Paul VI, which is included in the documents. Bacile then wrote to the pontiff explaining the situation unfolding in the Sicilian town.

In a November 1977 letter, Bacile told the pope that for over a year the group had been “the object of careful attention and serious pastoral concern,” and that he followed it “closely” though his auxiliary bishop Giuseppe Costanzo.

In it, he says the group was prone to “psychologically subjugate the people who frequent” it by making “great use of psychological intimidation,” and that they don’t hesitate to insult or threaten those who oppose or contradict them.

Bacile adds that the group had ignored priests he’d sent to try to help them, as a means of “evading control.” He concludes saying its members are “to be pitied. Some are in good faith and don’t know anything about the unclean things that are circulating concerning their ‘leaders’,” the bishop told the pope.

The Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy weighed in on December 14, 1977, in a letter signed by American Cardinal John Wright and addressed to Bacile. In it, the Vatican instructs the bishop to warn “suaviter et fortiter” (gently and firmly) Cavalli again, and if he disobeys, to impose sanctions under Church rules.

The congregation suggests that Cavalli be sent away from the parish under Ecclesiae Sanctae, Pope Paul VI’s motu proprio that emerged from Vatican II.

A letter by the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy to Bishop Pasquale Bacile of Acireale, instructing him to make Father Stevalli Cavalli obey and if he doesn’t expell him from the parish.

On September 15, 1978 Cavalli was sent away to the beach locality of Fiumefreddo, without any official sanction against him, but documents show that he continued to come to Lavina not long after, incurring annoyance on the part of the bishop.

That the issues concerning the Lavina group continued to gather attention is demonstrated in a letter written by Bacile to Cardinal Pappalardo, at the time the head of the Sicilian Conference of Bishops, in February 1978.

“The Lavina case is beginning to explode,” the bishop wrote, asking the conference to intervene and suggesting mounting frustration with the group refusing to obey the bishop’s orders.

In the same period, members of the Lavina group wrote to the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy as well as the Sicilian bishops’ conference to express their feeling of being persecuted by the local Church authorities.

The group also attacked members of local clergy. In a letter in May 1978, Bacile writes to Cardinal Sergio Baggio of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops that he, his auxiliary and members of the diocese had received numerous phone calls at all hours “insulting us with extreme vulgarity and threatening bishops and priests.”

Bacile also states that he’s repeatedly asked for tape recordings of Cenacle meetings, the group’s headquarters, but they never handed them over, another demonstration, he said, of the group defying his attempts to assert control.

In the letter, Bacile also highlights his annoyance that “the presence of young women is particularly welcomed and sought after, especially the more attractive ones, who are more willing to participate, pleased to be able to receive a greater effusion of the Holy Spirit (?!)”

He notes that the meetings had been moved from the Church to Cavalli’s own home, where they continued to perform exorcisms and prayers of liberation “in an indecent fashion and always against my express wishes.”

Bacile points to “heavy accusations” against the leaders of the group, adding that he “cannot admit good faith.” He highlights the “lack of psychic balance” of its leaders and the suspicion that “they pursue hidden agendas.”

In 1981, Capuana published his second novel, Sunrise, under the fake name of Emanuele Giordano, which recounts the story of an older man, Peter, who lives in an idyllic world and falls in love with two underage girls, Cristina and Sally. In the novel, when Sally takes Peter into the “real world” their love is persecuted and met with social condemnation, forcing the protagonist to return to his utopian oasis.

The bishop in Acireale, who at that point was Giuseppe Malandrino, issued a “notification” against the novel due to the excessive use of nudity. The documents include an interview with Capuana who defends his work and criticizes the bishop with strong words.

Alleged victims have told Crux that Capuana would have them read the book and many similar ones he wrote after.

Malandrino also sent a priest to overlook ACCA, Father Orazio Finocchiaro, who died in 2012. After having spent five months within the group, he gave a report to the bishop.

Finocchiaro describes an “excessive exaltation of Father Cavalli and Piero (the leader of the group),” and wrote that the association had “more a military than ecclesial style,” in a letter to Malandrino written in September 1982.

Seven years later, in May 1979, he wrote another letter to the bishop where he recommends issuing a special set of statutes for the group rather than just guidelines, which clearly suggests he still regarded the group as “Catholic” at that time and under the bishop’s authority.

The past 20 years: “It was a Catholic group”

On April 22, Crux met with a former president of the association, Salvatore Torrisi, who lives in Lavina not far from the Cenacle. He is currently charged with aiding and abetting a criminal conspiracy, after allegedly reporting to leaders of the group that there was a police investigation against them in 2016.

He insists the group was treated with favor by Church authorities.

“In the 20 years that I was president, there was a relationship with the Church,” he told Crux, adding that ACCA members “absolutely” felt like a Catholic group.

Torrisi stated that “all the bishops passed through our Cenacle,” adding that it was Bishop Pio Vigo of Acireale (whose term ran from 2002 to 2011) who inaugurated their meeting place when it was created. He said that every bishop with the sole exception of Bishop Salvatore Gristina, who was bishop for just a short period in the early 2000s, visited the association.

According to Torrisi, even the current Bishop Antonino Raspanti of Acireale wrote in a pastoral letter “that he was more often in Lavina than perhaps in all the other parishes.”

Torrisi, who became a part of ACCA in 1991, said that part of his job there was to mend the relationship with the Church authorities and the parishioners.

Despite the vast documentation raising concerns about ACCA, Torrisi said that on many occasions Raspanti asked the group to enter the Church formally in order to assign it an official religious spiritual leader. For more than a decade, that role was unofficially held by Father Rosario Di Bella.

“The bishops, knowing of the closeness of Di Bella with the association, approved it, and he never said ‘Don’t go there.’ No, in fact he approved it,” Torrisi said.

He added that in his opinion, “the bishop had a good idea of the community, and could especially see its potential,” which he said is proven by the fact that Raspanti suggested ACCA work in partnership with the diocese for charitable initiatives.

Under his rule as president, Torrisi also stated that “the relationship with the parish was recovered splendidly,” to the extent that some of them were brought into ACCA and participated in their meetings at the Cenacle.

In March 2017, Torrisi handed in his resignation from the association and presented it to Raspanti in a private meeting at the diocese. He said he was disenchanted by the group when it was made clear to him by its leaders, after charges of sexual abuse were filed, that “the association is Capuana, and Capuana is the association.”

“We made a mistake, I say today looking back, because clearly the spiritual life of the association should not have been based solely on the locutions by Capuana, and thus on what the Archangel Michael said. It should have been based on study, catechesis, listening to the Holy Scriptures, the Gospel and the entire journey that a Catholic should do. But I didn’t understand this. I didn’t understand,” Torrisi said. “For me we were a part of a divine project of God, a divine project. I felt like an instrument, I was honored to be an instrument of God’s project.”

The former president of ACCA, who also works as a nurse in a local hospital, now acknowledges other strange dynamics that existed within the lay group, such as resistance to publishing balance sheets, raising issues about money – made worse by the fact that a police search in Capuana’s apartment February 24, 2017, found over $70,000 in cash.

He also recognizes a lack of due attention by the diocese.

“Don’t bishops hand each other records?” Torrisi asked. “At the hospital where I work, when we finish turns we give our records. If there is something in particular that needs to be highlighted or placed under observation during my turn, I have a duty to tell my colleague coming up next. If Pio Vigo had an idea, and it looks like the papers confirm this about the association, I think that perhaps he should have said something.”

Torrisi said that the Church should have “morally” managed the association. “Imagine if someone who represents the Church should not also take care of a people, that while not having the Church stamp, are children, and a part of the Church,” he said.

2011: The first report of sexual abuse

While the documents and interview with Torrisi show a close tie to local Church authorities, they do not point to express knowledge of sexual abuse within ACCA. The first clear indication that the diocese was aware of sexual abuse complaints came in 2011, according to the pre-trial detention order against Capuana and his associates, in which the parents of an alleged victim report that in 2011 they visited Vigo to report the abuse.

The family told police that in 2010, they had been warned by Father Domenico Rapisarda, of the nearby town in Mascalucia, not to visit the association given the rumors that it was a sect and that Capuana sexually abused young women.

Their daughter, who at the time was 14, told the police that in August of 2010 Capuana had asked to speak to her during a meeting at the Cenacle, where he caressed her hand and expressed his interest in her.

“The following weekend I went to the Cenacle, and during the dance Capuana held me close while touching my breast. As a protection, I immediately tightened my arms and the man then whispered in my ear: ‘Now that I am touching your breast aren’t you mischievous?’ I froze so much that the man let me go and continued to dance with the other girls,” she recounted.

After that, she told police that she told her mother what had happened with Capuana, who was already concerned by what she had been told by Rapisarda, and she was forbidden by her family from ever going to the community again.

The girl’s mother and father told the police they visited Vigo.

“The prelate, having listened to us, told us he had been aware of what was happening for over thirty years,” the parents say in the police report.

A few days later the bishop called the parents to his office for a meeting with the Carabinieri, Italy’s special police force, but no official charge against the group or its leaders resulted.

In summary, what these documents and eyewitness accounts confirm is:

First, for more than 40 years, the Diocese of Acireale and its leadership was aware of concerns with deviant doctrinal and spiritual practices within the movement which eventually became the “Catholic Culture and Environment Association,” including a strong cult of personality around its lay leader, the “Archangel.”

Second, since the early 1980s, the diocese was aware that the lay leader not only harbored fantasies about sexual relationships with young girls, but actually published those fantasies in novel form.

Third, for at least the past eight years, and perhaps more, the Diocese of Acireale has been aware of charges of sexual misconduct and abuse against minor girls within the group.

Fourth, the evidence shows that for the most part, a series of four bishops continued to allow the association to meet on Church grounds and treated it, for all intents and purposes, as a fully legitimate Catholic organization.

Whatever happens in Capuana’s criminal trial, this record suggests that Church officials in Acireale may face some hard questions about oversight, and the Vatican may be pressed to come up with better tools to help dioceses such as Acireale exercise vigilance over sometimes defiant lay-led organizations.