ROME – Adding another layer of intrigue to the already complicated civil trial involving a Catholic lay group in Sicily, whose lay leader stands accused of sexually abusing at least ten underage girls, two of the witnesses have retracted their original statements and now say they were never raped or molested.
During a pretrial hearing, one of the witnesses said requests by the lay leader of the group to undress before him “didn’t mean anything physical,” adding that in her previous statements – when she claimed to have been sexually abused – she lied because she was frightened and her words were misunderstood.
“So, the fact of getting undressed means undressing our problems, I mean my problems, in the sense that being a teenager anyway, it’s normal for us to have this paranoia, so undressing is in the sense of freeing ourselves of our paranoia, of our problems,” said witness 11 in a court record dated Nov. 14, 2017 obtained by Crux.
(The names of the witnesses have been withheld since many are underage. The numbers next to the witness serve only for clarity.)
Piero Alfio Capuana, 74, is charged with the abuse of at least ten underage girls while he was head of the lay Catholic and Culture and Environment Association, or ACCA, whose members considered him to be the reincarnation of the Archangel Michael.
According to witness 11’s original account to the authorities shortly after Capuana’s arrest, dated August 11, 2017, the so-called “Archangel” would lead the girls into his room and ask them to undress and have sexual intercourse with him. During the pre-trial hearing, though, the witness claimed to have lied at the time because she was intimidated by the prosecutor.
The prosecutor revealed to witness 11 during the hearing that her text messages had been intercepted by the police during the investigation. One message from the witness to Capuana read: “I love you so much! I need your love and I don’t want to be away from you. You are my life, I don’t want to be away from you! You are my man!”
Pressured to explain the meaning of the message to a man many times her senior, the witness claimed that “I love you” was used as a way of showing affection and nothing more, because Capuana represented for her a “point of reference.”
The judge reminded the witness of her oath to speak the truth and of the penalties that would occur if she lied, which in Italy include up to six years in prison.
Despite the warning, the witness remained steadfast in her new testimony, calling it “my truth,” and adding that she still trusts Capuana “blindly” and views him as a spiritual guide.
“In the end he was a father for me, a friend, a grandfather, an important person and I trusted him and so I confided in him,” she said.
Witness 10, who joined ACCA in October of 2016, also changed her original version of events to state that Capuana was innocent and never sexually abused her, adding that she “said those things out of fear.”
In her testimony back in August 2017, she had said that Capuana would have women, including minors, undress him and wash him after dance parties at the Cenacle, the ACCA headquarters.
Public Prosecutor: How did the girls greet Capuana when they met him on public occasions?
Witness 10: Simply with a kiss.
She then added, “on the mouth, but I see nothing wrong.”
The judge then reminded her of the penalties the witness might go up against for lying under oath and false testimony.
The prosecutor also told her of a conversation between her and witness 11 that was taped by the police. During the interrogation, the two witnesses wore the same necklace, but while Witness 10 said that they were a St. Valentine gift from Capuana the other attempted to deny it. When the two spoke afterwards, they argued over what version of the story to tell the police, with witness 11 insisting that they had to say they were a gift “in friendship.”
Witness 10 claimed not to remember the conversation clearly and remained firm in her new version of the facts surrounding ACCA.
“I really esteem them, it’s true,” the witness told the prosecutor referring to Capuana and his accomplices. “I esteem them because in any case they were people who always supported me, they helped me, they taught me values and principles.”
As the witness spoke in court, Capuana was present, though he was blocked from view by a screen in order to protect the identity of the witnesses and assure that they could freely express themselves.
Capuana was arrested along with three female accomplices: Fabiola Raciti, Katia Scarpignato and Rosaria Giuffridda – who were among the “Apostles” who managed ACCA. The three women were in charge of organizing so-called “turns” for the girls to stay at Capuana’s three homes, where the abuse allegedly took place, and to coax the young women into having sex with him calling it “love from above” and “pure love.”
In the almost 400 pages of court records, the other 13 witnesses – those who continue to allege that Capuana sexually abused them – presented their own version of the facts. Though their accounts vary in terms of date and experience, their testimonies share several details. All the other witnesses, for instance, claim that Raciti, Scarpignato and Giuffridda were responsible for convincing and manipulating them into having sex with Capuana.
Witness 1 said that when she broke down crying after Capuana asked her to undress and groped her at the age of 13, Raciti was called into the room to convince her.
“Basically, [Raciti] consoled me by saying that anyway they all had done it, even herself, all the girls had done it to be close to him, because being close to him was an absolute privilege and we were close to God when we were close to him,” she said.
After recounting her experience of trying to escape Capuana’s sexual advances, Witness 6 said that Raciti convinced her to go for a car ride with Capuana, all the while attempting to convince her to caress him and kiss him. Once witness 6 told her mother about the attempted abuse, Raciti told her that she was no longer welcome at ACCA.
Witness 9 said she also attempted to run away once Capuana began stroking her legs and breasts in his bedroom, and claimed that Raciti came in to convince her that “there was nothing wrong, there was nothing mischievous” in doing what she was asked by the “Archangel.”
According to numerous sources, the three female accomplices had been victims of abuse by Capuana in the past and now acted as his wingmen.
“They also had had sexual intercourse with Capuana,” said witness 15, “they knew everything, everything that happened to Capuana.”
Other common elements include:
- All accounts by the witnesses, with only one exception, showed a good knowledge of where the abuses took place, including the Cenacle, Capuana’s various homes including his beach property and even the Church of Lavina where ACCA met on Sundays for Mass.
- Specific descriptions of Capuana’s room where he allegedly performed the sexual acts are shared by all the witness accounts. The mirror that was used to allow Capuana to “see all angles” during intercourse; a lamp that he would use to better see the young girls; the use of towels over the sheets and pillows, which were meant to be washed after coitus; the couch in his study where he would sit while beckoning the girls to him.
- The actual sexual practices also match in all the descriptions. Being over 70, he could not often have an erection and would struggle to complete the intercourse, witnesses said. They also claimed that Capuana would ask them to have group sex with other girls.
“He would have us get naked, he wanted us to masturbate him and masturbate ourselves, not very gently he would take our heads and put it on his nipples to lick them, we would have oral sex, even complete, often he would scratch us, we always had marks on our breasts, everywhere, because anyway he wasn’t very delicate and honestly he was disgusting because he would get all sweaty, I still have his smell on me!” said witness 3.
Witness 8 said that at the age of 13, Capuana presented himself naked in a small room in one of his properties where they were all staying for a summer retreat.
“I found him naked on the bed with a towel over him… he was laying over a towel on the bed and he had another smaller towel, a face towel, over his stomach,” she said.
As the other witnesses had, she claimed that he watched her undress and she lay next to him as he masturbated. Confirming other accounts, witness 8 also said that Capuana would ask the girls to drink his sperm as a holy and sacramental gesture.
Witness 9 described Capuana’s routine in the same manner.
“He would have me lock the door, he would sit on the couch and tell me to undress,” she said, “then he would lay down also and… and abuse, abuse me.”
- The witness accounts of the “turns” and how they were asked to spend at least one day a week at his house, often lying to their parents in order to sleep over, also coincide.
- All the girls admitted to being forced to write love letters to Capuana that were dictated by the three women in his inner circle. Some also claimed that those letters were held against them as proof that they were willing to take part in the sexual act.
- The witnesses claim to have been threatened by Capuana and his accomplices if they attempted to leave ACCA, and that they were called “possessed” if they avoided having sex with him.
“They would manipulate you as they pleased, they would tell you that if you left or went away from him everything would go wrong, wrong in your family, wrong in your life and it created fear,” said witness 1.
Considering that many family members were employed thanks to Capuana’s connections, or had benefited from a loan from him, the consequences of accusing such a figure loomed large. To make matters more complicated, the girls were encouraged by ACCA to date boys who were within the community and believed in the holiness of Capuana.
“We couldn’t stand it anymore, we would say that we couldn’t stand it, but in the end we had to do it,” said witness 8 referring to the alleged abuse, “because otherwise things would have gone bad, our families would have been destroyed.”
- Almost all the witnesses, except the two who recanted, said that after the dance parties that would occur every Sunday at Mass with ACCA members, a sweaty Capuana would bring his most trusted female acolytes, some of whom were underage, to the bathroom where he would have them wash and dress him.
“So after dancing we would accompany him, myself present, and we would help him shower, we undressed him, we washed him, we did… we helped him and we dried his hair, in the meantime he also, sometimes he would make these ‘locutions’ and speak to each of the girls,” witness 15 told the magistrate, referring to moments when Capuana claimed to speak the will of the Archangel Michael.
Witness 15 offered another important insight about how ACCA reacted once the accusations against its spiritual leader were revealed, since she was the last to come to the authorities, in April 2018, after her conversion to the Jehovah’s witnesses.
“We had this sort of meeting and they had us give up our phones because they said everything was being kept under eye,” she said. “They also made us delete text messages, everything, even calls, everything, and they told us what happened, and if anyone asked us we obviously had to say that it was all false.”
So far, the local diocese of Acireale has released two statements insisting that the nature of ACCA is civil, meaning lay and therefore not under its jurisdiction. While some canon lawyers challenge this position, previous reporting by Crux shows that the diocese was aware of issues of a moral nature within the association since the 1970s. Following an initial attempt by the diocese to exercise oversight that ended in 1976, ACCA has been able to call itself “Catholic” and gather followers on Church property undisturbed to this day.
(Capuana and his accomplices currently await trial over two years after his arrest. The ACCA group remains active in the community and works in partnership with religious organizations.)