It began as a religious procession like any other. Last week in the small town of Oppido Mamertina, on the toe of Italy’s boot, a marching band played in the background as priests walked with the mayor, mothers pushed strollers, and two dozen men carried on their shoulders an elaborate statue of the Madonna.
But then the parade diverted from its scheduled route. And as it did so, the procession paused in front of the home of convicted mob boss Peppe Mazzagatti. What had been a religious event took on haunting significance as those bearing the statue allegedly paid tribute to the ‘Ndrangheta, the ruthless crime syndicate based in the Calabria region.
Just a week before the parade, Pope Francis made headlines in a visit to the ‘Ndrangheta’s home turf when he said anyone who is a member of organized crime is “excommunicated." But the parade certainly made it appear that the mafia and their associates don't give a damn.
“True mobsters don’t pay any attention to what Francis said,” Don Marcello Cozzi, the vice-president of Italian anti-mafia association Libera, tells VICE News. “These are people who make the sign of the cross before and after they kill someone. They’ve created an image of the Holy Father according to themselves. What’s worrisome is that we the priests aren’t distancing ourselves. The priests allow what occurred (in Oppido Mamertina) to happen, and it’s nothing new”.
Today the ‘Ndrangheta is considered Italy’s most powerful crime group, outdoing its rivals the Camorra around Naples and Cosa Nostra in Sicily thanks to prolific extortion rackets and a virtual stranglehold on Europe’s cocaine trafficking. The ‘Ndrangheta rakes in an estimated 3 billion euros in annual turnover, according to Milan University expert Ernesto Savona.
There have been untold years of complacency, if not outright subservience, on the part of some Italian clergy. So it's not surprising that last week was not to be the first time that a religious procession has honored Mazzagatti, who is serving a life sentence for murder under house arrest, a luxury granted him due to the fact that he is 82.
'Chase him out of here and give him a couple of smacks,' the priest said.
“It looks like a questionable practice that’s been going on for some time,” says Nicola Gratteri, one of Italy’s top anti-Mafia prosecutors. He has often chided some clergy for “keeping their eyes closed” when it comes to organized crime.
Members of the ‘Ndrangheta are known for valuing the trappings of Catholicism more than the Golden Rule. Gilded in religious iconography, their secluded bunkers often resemble shrines. Every year in September, bosses are known to gather at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Polsi in the heart of Aspromonte, a bleak mountainous area, to discuss strategy amid thousands of religious pilgrims.
Gratteri says affiliates routinely pray at the shrine before carrying out a hit.
“Figurines of saints play a role in ‘Ndrangheta initiation rites," he says. "In their hideouts we find images of Our Lady of Polsi, the Archangel Michael, even [controversial Catholic saint] Padre Pio. For this reason, the members of the ‘Ndrangheta are convinced they’re in the right when they kill."
This week, authorities in Calabria opened an investigation into the parade in an effort to trace possible mafia links to those responsible for the detour to the mobster’s home. Police say they have identified several suspects.
While Gratteri doubts the gesture was in direct defiance of Francis, he says crime syndicates are taking note of his harsh words and acting out in other ways. The prosecutor points to an event this past weekend inside the maximum-security section of the Larino prison in southern Italy, where some 200 inmates told their chaplain they would no longer attend Mass following Francis’s excommunication.
“We as priests need to create clear boundaries — we can’t be everyone’s friend," Cozzi says. "That doesn’t go against Christian charity. As a priest I’m available to talk to you, a mobster, if you call me to say, ‘Look, I want to rethink my criminal life. Help me.’ I’ll talk to that mobster. But if you, a mobster, keep breaking the law and you call me up for a coffee, I won’t come. I don’t want anything to do with you. I’ll be the first one to report you."
Still, it appears some clergy will never stop catering to the mafia, as one Calabrian journalist recently learned. Shortly after reporting on the procession in Oppido Mamertina, Lucio Musolino tried to attend Mass at a church in the area. He was spotted by the same priest, Don Benedetto Rustico, who led the procession.
“Chase him out of here and give him a couple of smacks,” the priest said, according to Musolino, who writes for Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano.
He was able to turn on his video camera as parishioners shoved him backward. As he defended his freedom of the press, the video captured one woman raising her middle finger.
“They were blaming me for tarnishing the name of their town,” he tells VICE News. “Pope Francis can say anything he likes, but the problem is that much of the clergy tolerates the mafia. Evidently some things are stronger than religion and the pope.”
Follow Chris Livesay on Twitter: @cLivesay