a ruthless Mafia band of kidnappers currently holding five wealthy Italians for millionpound ransom. The bishops made a public appeal to the crime ring to contact them to negotiate their substitution for the hostages.
Their pledge to stand in for the victims, even while the kidnappers deal secretly with families for ransom payments, follows the latest snatch this week of an eight-year-old girl, youngest daughter of a wealthy North Italian clothing manufacturer.
Little Patrizia lacchella was kidnapped just 200 yards from her home on her way to a supermarket to buy sweets. Police believe she was chosen to replace a 21-year-old student kidnapped two years ago and released last weekend on a halfmillion-pound ransom payment.
In the past year, the highly specialised gang has kidnapped ten Italians, believed held in grottoes in the rugged mountains of Calabria, the "toe" of the Italian peninsula. Five remain prisoners, including a 20-year-old man, snatched two years ago and whose family has already paid just under £2.5 million "towards" his release.
The first plea to substitute the hostages came from Bishop Giuseppe Amari of Verona. "I am ready to go with the kidnappers", he said.
His dramatic public pledge was followed by another, from the Bishop of Acerra in south Italy, Antonio Riboldi, who has offered to act as substitute for a member of his diocese, kidnapped last October.
Other bishops whose faithful have been caught up in the kidnappings are likely to make similar offers.
Although kidnapping, dubbed the "Italian disease", has been rife in Italy since the 1970s when the current gang's predecessors held American millionaire's son, Paul Getty, for ransom, this is the first time the Church has publicly declared its willingness to negotiate in some way with the perpetrators.
And also for the first time, the Vatican's official daily Osservatore Romano, has criticised apparent Italian state inactivity in Mafia-controlled zones.
"At times, even the forces which represent the state wait until citizens report the violence they are subject to rather than take the initiative", the newspaper said.