Pope to Visit Southern Italian Region of Calabria
By Manuela Mesco and Giada Zampano
(The Wall Street Journal) When Pope Francis visits the southern region of Calabria on Saturday, he will venture into the stronghold of one of the world's biggest criminal organizations—one whose tentacles allegedly extend into local churches there, according to Italian prosecutors.
The pope will visit the small town of Cassano Jonico, where a 3-year-old child, Nicola "Coco" Campolongo, was killed along with his grandfather in January, allegedly by Calabria's Mafia, known as the 'Ndrangheta.
Born in one of Europe's poorest regions, the 'Ndrangheta has proved far harder for prosecutors to crack than the better-known Sicilian Mafia.
Tight family ties and a low profile have helped it proliferate in Italy and abroad, resulting in an estimated annual turnover of €53 billion ($72 billion), or about 3.5% of the Italian economy, according to the research firm Demoskopika.
Pope Francis has followed his predecessors in denouncing the Mafia. But his visit also throws a light on the relationship between the Catholic Church in Italy and the country's deeply rooted organized crime.
Pope Francis in Rome on Thursday. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Traditionally 'Ndrangheta bosses proudly professed their Catholic faith, looking to "exploit the bond between the church and large swaths of populations in southern Italy," says Giuseppe Pignatone, a prosecutor who investigated Mafia cases in the region.
Mob bosses often requested that parish processions stop in front their homes as a way to thank them for paying for the celebrations, according to evidence gathered by magistrates for trials of alleged 'Ndrangheta members.
"For too long the church has pretended not to see, allowing Mafia affiliates to raise money, build churches, organize the processions," said Mafia expert Antonio Nicaso. "If this pope wants to turn the page he has to make a firm decision and draw a straight line. Only in this way he will keep Mafia members out of the church and will mark a real change from the past."
Calabrian bishops issued a document in April in which they condemned Mafia as a "cancer...that tramples on the highest values and the most sacred aspects of life." They also renewed the church's appeal for Mafia members to repent.
In a statement Thursday, Bishop Giuseppe Fiorini Morosini said the church should work harder to overcome the divide between faith and day-to-day behavior. "However all italian institutions should examine their consciences," he said, and not just priests who have made mistakes.
Investigations by Italian prosecutors have found that the 'Ndrangheta has over the decades infiltrated the local church and other institutions.
According to evidence presented during mob trials, 'Ndrangheta bosses gathered every Sept. 3 in a Catholic church high in the mountains, Santa Maria di Polsi, to "baptize" new members, discuss strategies and pray until at least 2009.
Nicola Gratteri, chief prosecutor in the Calabrian capital of Reggio Calabria, says he believes the meetings started during the 1890s and still occur. Images of the Madonna in the church have been found on many people arrested for 'Ndrangheta association.
Pino Strangio, who has headed the sanctuary for 15 years, says he has never seen mob bosses meeting there.
"We as the church strongly condemn the 'Ndrangheta and any other organized crime," he said. He says he was never involved in any investigation or called to testify.
Some priests have been investigated for 'Ndrangheta association. In one ongoing trial, a local prelate and police chaplain, Nuccio Cannizzaro, stands accused of making false statements and helping Mafia bosses.
Prosecutors say they have recordings of him, obtained through wiretaps, offering to use his Mafia ties to do favors for locals, such as skipping hospital waiting lists. "Nothing happened without [Father] Cannizzaro knowing," said Stefano Musolino, the prosecutor on the case.
Father Cannizzaro denies the allegations, his lawyer said, and says that they are based on a misunderstanding. When the priest was indicted, local residents staged angry protests. A verdict could arrive next month.
Another priest, Salvatore Santaguida, is under investigation in a separate case for allegedly providing 'Ndrangheta bosses with police information. The priest, who has been suspended as pastor of the local church, says he is innocent, his lawyer said.
Pope John Paul II took a strong public stance against organized crime. "Repent!" he said in Sicily in 1993. "God's judgment will come." Pope Benedict XVI called on young people not to give in to the Mafia's promises.
Pope Francis has also called on Mafiosi to "change your life, convert, stop doing harm," and voiced support for priests who refuse funeral rites for Mafia associates.
He became emotional when denouncing the killing of the Calabrian toddler Coco, who was caught up in an alleged mob hit. The car with the two bodies was then burned.
In March the pope prayed with the families of nearly 1,000 people allegedly killed by Italian organized crime. The Italian Catholic Church recently decreed that seminarians in Calabria must study the 'Ndrangheta, so that they can fight it more effectively.
Giacomo Panizza, a priest who has lived in Calabria for 40 years, says he was threatened and shot at when he used a home confiscated from the 'Ndrangheta as a center to help disabled.
For years, Father Panizza felt alone in fighting the Mafia in Calabria, he says, with local priests dismissing his concerns in the 1990s. "They used to say that I couldn't understand because I was not born there," recalls Father Panizza, who is originally from a northern Italian town.
"I feel safer today," he says. "It's harder to shoot a priest if the whole church is behind him."