Page 5, 15th August 1997

15th August 1997
Page 5
Page 5, 15th August 1997 — 'If there is one thing the Mafia takes seriously, it is the trappings of religion'

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Locations: Rome, Palermo, Chicago


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'If there is one thing the Mafia takes seriously, it is the trappings of religion'

Godfathers and Go

The Sicilian 'Mafia' likes to be called `Chiesa Nostra' — Our Church. It even claims to have its own patron saint. And while the real Church stands firmly against it, some clergy have been seriously implicated. Our Rome Correspondent, BRUCE JOHNSTON, reports

THIS SUMMER, in different parts of Italy, two unconnected yet symbolically important events concerning the Mafia and the Church were strangely juxtaposed in time, like scenes in a Godfather film.

The first was a Mafia kitman's confession that he had murdered Fr Guiseppe Puglisi, a popular Palermo priest who had led a crusade against Cosa Nostra. The second was a Vatican ceremony in which the Pope presented Mgr Pio Vittorio Vito with the pallium, a garment given to new metropolitan bishops which is representative of the Church's authority and of their communion with Peter.

Fr Puglisi's killing in September 1993 chilled Sicily and its Church so much that Palermo 's then archbishop, the legendary Mafia-fighting Cardinal Pappalardo, celebrated a solemn Mass in his honour, with the local prelature virtually turning out in full attendance.

The significance of the second event that of Mgr Vito was overshadowed by the fact that the pallium, a strip of white woollen cloth worn like a collar, was also given to the more famous Mgr Francis George of Chicago in the same ceremony.

Mgr Vito was thus overlooked by the media. But his diocese should not be. It is that of Monreale, in Sicily. It is richer, bigger and more powerful than that of Palermo. And in the Sicilian capital it goes by the nickname of "Chiesa Nostra" Our Church.

So what is the connection between the two events? Nothing, except that Salvatore "the hunter" Grigoli, who confessed to Fr Puglisi's killing, is supposed to have been one of Leoluca Bagarella's most prized hitmen. Bagarella, brother-in -law of Mafia Godfather Salvatore "Toto" Riina, has been behind bars since 1995. But when he was on the run, police believe he had used the mobile phone of the assistant a member of the clergy of the Archbishop of Monreale.

It is thought that Bagarella was concealed somewhere on Church property in or around Monreale, which is close to Corleone, the Mafia centre.

Mgr Vito has been appointed to replace the allpowerful and controversial figure of Cardinal Salvatore Cassisa, Archbishop of Monreale, because, technically, Cassisa has turned 75. Unofficially, however, the Cardinal was retired early because he is presently on trial for corruption concerning the property of his archbishopric, whose cathedral possesses some of the most beautiful mosaics in the world. .

Allegations of Mafia ties against the prelate have apparently been dropped by investigators, but those of EU fraud and bribery remain.

Much has been made of this, as well as the archbishop's alleged love of money and power, and the fact that he is the local head of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, which his archenemy, Palermo mayor Leoluca Orlando, has likened to "a secret masonic lodge".

But what is important is that for years, Monreale has been, what is in Sicilian parlance concerning Mafia activities, chiaccherato, or "darkly gossiped about".

SHORTLY AFTER Fr Puglisi's murder, Rome's respected La Repubblica newspaper wrote an editorial branding Monreale the symbol of that part of the Church in league with the priest's assassins, and calling on the Vatican to seize the opportunity of investigations "to shed light on the mystery of Monreale".

"We want to avoid witnessing yet again the humiliating (for everyone) behaviour of the Church of Rome in the face of the scandal of Cardinal [Paul] Marcinkus," the paper wrote.

It described Marcinkus, the now-retired director of the Vatican bank, known as the Institute of Religious Works (IOR), as "a friend of the mafioso Michele Sindona and of Roberto Calvi, with whom he turned the IOR into a bank of illicit deals." It added: "On that occasion the Vatican protected its bishop-banker with such iron firmness that the Monsignor was never really forced to reveal his secrets. "The wound inflicted on the Church has still not fully healed."

Grigoli's confession now that it was he who killed Fr Puglisi with a single 7.65 bullet in the head was both disturbing and encouraging in an island where not long ago eight priests wrote to the Pope complaining that some clergy and prelates were "not authentic witnesses of the liberation which Christ wants for our island".

By raising the prospect of justice being done, Grigoli's confession was encouraging even if it only came after five hours of questioning following his capture as he sat, bare-torsoed but wearing a gun-belt, as he ate lobster at home.

But it was also chilling. According to an informant called Pasquale Di Filippo, Grigoli said after killing Fr Puglisi: "This is the kind of job that brings satisfaction."

Don Salvatore Salvia, a 50year-old priest named months ago by a supergrass as having actually become a member of the Mafia, complete with full initiation, is a product of the seminary of Monreale.

Cardinal Cassisa's predecessor as Archbishop of Monreale, Corrado Mingo, was a close chum of Padre Agostino "Ustino" Coppola, who was also a product of the same seminary.

Padre Coppola is described in the local chronicles as being a "man of God, but also of Cosa Nostra".

The priest, who was also a friend of the Mafia boss of Monreale, Peppuccio Garda, was the nephew of Frank "Three Fingers" Coppola, an Italo-American gangster who helped to develop heroin refinement in Italy after the War.

The priest's two brothers were also mafiosi and the padre himself was eventually jailed and convicted of being the middleman in a kidnapping. When he was eventually accused of another, Mgr Mingo of Monreale took the blame for him.

But it was Padre Ustino's celebration of the marriage of Salvatore "Toto" Riina to Ninetta Bagarella in 1974 in secret that won him the greatest notoriety.

FoR IF THERE is one thing the Mafia takes seriously, it is the trappings of religion. Piero Aglieri, the Mob's alleged new acting secondin-command, who was arrested several months ago in a hideout where police found huge crucifixes, statues and other religious objects, now wants to a take a university degree in theology, his lawyer says.

Like Benedetto "Nitto" Santapaola, Catania's Godfather who was caught in bed fours years ago after spending 11 years on the run, Aglieri actually studied in a seminary. "Santapaola dreamt of becoming a priest," a Mafia historian wrote after his capture, "but in the end he chose the Mafia instead."

Palermo's huge feast of its patron saint, Santa Rosalia, which occurs each year in July, is commonly said to be "the Mafia's celebration". For the saint is their patron too, and every mafioso worth his salt carries a holy card dedicated to her in his wallet.

Such an icon will remind most mafiosi of the good old days, when they like Don Salvatore Salvia is supposed to have done swore allegiance to the Mob in the presence of members of the family that took them in. As the novice's finger is pricked, leaving blood to drip onto a holy card, and the card then set alight on the palm of one of the person's hands ("may I burn like this should I ever betray...")., the capo famigha reads out the Cosa Nostra's commandments.

"Thou must not covet thy neighbour's wife, never talk to outsiders of the 'organisation', thou must not steal" and so on. "Hey, no stealing?" exclaimed a man in eastern Sicily as he was being initiated.

"Of course you can steal," came the reply, "just so long as it's not from one of us."

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