ROME, Italy — A group of men stand in circle outside a church in a secluded patch of Italy, a statue of the Virgin Mary in the background. In the middle, an 80-year-old mafia boss speaks in heavily accented Italian, having been elected leader of “The Crime,” the local mob syndicate.
"The Crime doesn't belong to anyone. It belongs to everyone," he said finally.
A passage from the notepad of the scriptwriter on "The Godfather"?
Hardly. The unscripted scene comes from footage secretly filmed by Italian police during a months-long investigation which led to the arrest, on July 13, 2009, of around 300 members of the 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate.
Among those arrested was Domenico Oppedisano, the newly elected "capocrimine" — or "head of crime" — the leader of the group that oversees the syndicate's burgeoning operations in the Calabria region.
Enriched by trans-Atlantic cocaine trafficking of the past few decades, the police say the 'Ndrangheta has taken the place of the Sicilian Mafia as the most powerful crime organization in the country.
The July 13 raid was hailed as a milestone by the Italian government and prosecutors. But it has proved more than a little embarrassing for Monsignor Giuseppe Morosini, bishop of the Locri diocese in Calabria: The setting chosen by the mobsters for their meeting was the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Polsi, a revered Marian shrine perched high in the impassable Aspromonte mountains.
In fact, it showed that notwithstanding vocal condemnations in recent years by church authorities, Italy's organized crime still has close ties to Catholic rites and traditions.
This, said sociologist Alessandra Dino, who has written a book on the links between the church and the Mafia, is no surprise. The connection stretches back to the very origins of organized crime.
"Mobsters don't just 'use' religion, in order to increase consensus and complicity for their actions," said Dino, who bases her work on extensive interviews with former mafiosi and on their depositions at trials. By "adopting pseudo-religious rituals or sitting in the first rows of pews at masses and processions,” mobsters, "set themselves as models" for other people.
More importantly, she said, in doing so they “create a mechanism to grant themselves impunity from guilt” for their crimes. Mobsters, said Dino, believe to be “moved by higher motives. They say to themselves: 'We did what we did because we were acting in the name of God's justice, which is higher than the state's.'"
The perception is false, said Morosini, who reacted swiftly after the release of the footage, penning an open letter to the 'Ndrangheta mobsters.
"We had always thought that these meetings at holy shrines were folklore, but now we have had to re-think," he wrote, adding that the church “feels deeply sorry” for the mobsters for having transformed Polsi "from a place of faith into a place of lawlessness."
People's faith in the shrine, he wrote, “must be respected not laughed upon and humiliated.”
In an interview to GlobalPost, he said mobsters "did not live by Christian values, even if they showed off their devotion with an "obsequious behavior towards the church, such as kissing sacred images."
He added: “Faith has nothing to do with their activities and, as bishop, I invited them to convert and repent.”
Though Morosini's letter has been widely praised, social activists and anti-Mafia campaigners have questioned why it came only after the release of the meeting footage.
The church, says Vincenzo Linarello, a social activist in the area who funded co-op businesses that have often been target of mafia attacks for their refusal to pay protection money, has been “silent” on the mobsters' exhibited religiosity for too long.
The 'Ndrangheta's link to the Polsi shrine has been widely reported in studies on the Calabria mob for decades. In 1969, a police raid at the sanctuary led to the capture of 70 crime bosses, while many others escaped.
Dino said the church should have acted earlier. “It knows where many of the generous donations for the shrine came from. It should have rejected them.”
Moreover, the bishop's letter “downplays the link” between Polsi and the 'Ndrangheta, she said, "and blames it only on the mobsters, forgetting that it was the church that let it fester."
Morosini, bishop of Locri since 2008, said the church was working to change the mindset of the local population, though the task wasn't easy.
"My priests are 'in the trenches," he said, because changing the centuries-old traditions and rites that mobsters use to assert their power — such as processions stopping in front of the homes of local kingpins as a sign of reverence — was something deeply resented by the population. “We are now trying to 'purify' these rites, but it isn't easy.”
For a start, the rector of the sanctuary, Nino Strangio, told GlobalPost that every pilgrim who now visits Polsi receives a copy of the bishop's letter. This will happen also on Sept. 1, the Marian holiday when 'Ndrangheta summits are traditionally held.
"We heard about these things but until now it was just hearsay. I thank the police for putting the spotlight on these meetings," he said. "Now, we must be courageous and rebel against this phenomenon that defaces the beauty and holiness of this place."