ROME – Perhaps under the heading that no good deed ever goes unpunished, Pope Francis today finds himself dragged into a new controversy which, among other things, illustrates that even the very best of intentions have the potential to generate heartache.

The case centers on an Italian non-governmental organization called “Mediterranea,” the head of which is a former leader in the “no-global” movement and a longtime leftist activist named Luca Casarini, who recently took part in the Synod of Bishops on Synodality as a special nominee of Pope Francis.

Founded in 2018, Mediterranea operates the lone private rescue ship involved in saving migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean Sea flying the Italian flag, a vessel called the Mare Jonio. In the past five years, it’s carried out thirteen missions and is credited with saving roughly 2,000 victims of shipwrecks.

Mediterranea and Casarini enjoy the strong support of Pope Francis, for whom the fate of migrants and refugees attempting to make their way across the Mediterranean is a signature cause. He’s referred to the sea as the “largest cemetery in Europe” due to the large number of people who die every year trying to make the crossing; according to the UN refugee agency, more than 2,500 have perished this year alone.

While saving lives unquestionably is a worthy cause, there have been accusations that the group’s motives aren’t entirely altruistic.

Currently, Casarini and five other individuals associated with Mediterranea are under investigation in Sicily for an incident in 2020 in which the Mare Jonio, without permission from local authorities, disembarked 27 migrants in a Sicilian port whom it had taken on board from a Danish supply ship which had rescued them at sea 37 days before.

The Danish company that owned the ship, Maersk, later paid Mediterranea roughly $135,000, in what the company described as a donation but which prosecutors suspect was a payoff for violating Italian immigration laws. A judge is expected to rule Dec. 6 as to whether the case should go to trial.

Recently, two Italian news outlets published what they described as excerpts from messages exchanged among Casarini and other key figures in Mediterranea, intercepted as part of the Sicilian investigation, which appear to show a coordinated effort to exploit Casarini’s perceived closeness to Pope Francis in order to solicit financial support from various Catholic entities, including the Italian bishops’ conference, the Catholic charity Caritas, and various individual dioceses in Italy.

According to the report, from 2021 to 2023, Mediterranea received more than $2 million in financial support from those church sources, in large part because of the perceived favor from Pope Francis and his closest allies.

(As a footnote, the use of wiretaps and electronic surveillance in Italy by police and prosecutors is widespread, with the contents of those intercepts frequently leaked to the press. Critics say the practice often amounts to an abuse of the legal system to score political points, and the current government has vowed a reform.)

According to the alleged revelations in the media reports, at one point Casarini supposedly says that the $6,500 he gets every month from donations given to Mediterranea, especially from church sources, allows him to “pay the rent without having to go to work in a bar.” At another, a colleague of Casarini allegedly says “the church is becoming our Soros.”

After Pope Francis sent a note to Casarini in April 2019 that described him as “dear brother,” Casarini supposedly said the next step was to get the pope to call him “my beloved son.” In the messages, Casarini’s colleagues at various points describe him as “the pope’s ghostwriter” and “like Scalfari” (a reference to a veteran leftist Italian journalist, now deceased, with whom Francis carried on a highly public exchange early in his papacy.)

In another message, a priest who serves as the on-board chaplain for the Mare Jonio writes after a meeting with Pope Francis, “Guys, I still have to recover from the past few days, above all from the physical effort I put in to have the nerve to tell the pope to put in the money.” (The priest, Father Mattia Ferrari, allegedly used a more off-color expression than that, but this is a family news site.)

Ferrari also refers to a turning point in December 2019, when Mediterranea presented Pope Francis with a crucifix displaying the lifejacket of an unknown migrant who died at sea, which the pontiff had installed at one of the entrances to the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace.

“We’ve achieved historic results,” he said, predicting that the perceived papal endorsement will prompt “many bishops and cardinals to support Mediterranea,” meaning to give the group financial backing.

The messages purport to show Casarini and his colleagues discussing how to ensure that Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna would become the president of the Italian bishops’ conference, which he eventually did, and also discussing how to exploit the support of other key papal intimates, such as Cardinals Michael Czerny, Corrado Lorefice, and Jean-Claude Hollerich.

“If the financial situation becomes dramatic, we should go to [Zuppi] and Lorefice and bang the drum for cash,” Ferrari reportedly said at one stage.

For his part, Casarini has said that some of the quotes attributed to him and other members of the group are false, while others have been taken out of context. He’s threatened legal action against the news outlets which published them, and described the whole thing as “clearly an attack on Pope Francis.”

Casarini also insisted there’s no shame in taking money from the church.

“Why should we hide it? We’ve written thank-you notes to dioceses, parishes and scout troops. This is the church we like, which supports concrete efforts. I say this as a convert: This is the Gospel. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ applies, above all, at sea.”

Critics are seizing on the controversies around Casarini to raise doubts about the pope’s judgment, an effort which may gather steam depending on what happens with the Sicilian ruling expected this week.

In any event, in a moment when Pope Francis has been dealing with perceived enemies within the church, including American prelates such as Bishop Joseph Strickland and Cardinal Raymond Burke, the Casarini affair may be a reminder that sometimes, he can have almost as much to fear from his friends.