Feature

Is Pope Francis on the Mafia's hit list?

The Pope has angered Italy's crime lords with his corruption crackdown

Pope Francis has annoyed a lot of people during his eight months in the Vatican. Conservative Catholics have questioned his commitment to doctrine. Sarah Palin has blasted him as a liberal. And liberals have condemned him for refusing to endorse female priests and a woman's right to abortion.

Now Il Papa may have made an enemy that is actually dangerous: The mafia.

Nicola Gratteri — an Italian prosecutor who has battled southern Italy's shadowy 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate — told the Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano that Francis's crackdown on church corruption has made mobsters "nervous and agitated."

"If the bosses could trip him up they wouldn't hesitate," said Gratteri, according to The Guardian. "They could be dangerous."

The mafia has a lot to lose in Francis's clean-up. The Vatican Bank, which the pope has pledged to reform, has repeatedly been accused of laundering the mob's money. Some church officials are also suspected of helping crooks clean their cash through favorable property deals.

Earlier this week, for instance, police sequestered Rome's luxury Grand Hotel Gianicolo as part of a seizure of more than $200 million in properties and cash linked to the 'Ndrangheta. The hotel, previously a monastery, was allegedly sold to the mafia for $7 million by a religious order in the 1990s.

"The mafia that invests, that launders money, that therefore has the real power, is the mafia which has got rich for years from its connivance with the church," said Gratteri. "These are the people who are getting nervous."

While most mafioso identify themselves as Catholic — 88 percent of jailed Italian mobsters said they were religious in a recent survey — that doesn't mean the Pope is safe from reprisals. Indeed, the mafia has shown itself to be merciless when dealing with holy men who threaten their business.

Last year, mobsters dumped a severed pig's head on the doorstep of Father Ennio Stamile, who had condemned the local mafia in his weekly sermons. The bloodied animal head was found with a piece of cloth stuffed in its mouth outside the priest's home in southern Italy. The message was clear: Stop talking, or else.

Priests who don't take the mafia's advice can end up paying the ultimate price. In 1993, Father Pino Pugliesi, 56, was shot dead outside his church in Palermo, Sicily, after he urged locals to break the code of silence — omerta — and report crimes to the authorities. One of the hitmen who gunned down Puglisi, Salvatore Grigoli, later confessed to the crime and revealed that the priest had greeted his killers with the words, "I've been expecting you."

The following year, Father Giuseppe Diana, 36, was gunned down as he put on his vestments to celebrate Sunday mass. His crime? Urging parishioners to shun Naples' Camorra crime gangs. Shortly before his death, he testified to prosecutors investigating ties between the Camorra and local politicians and businessmen, and had threatened to stop administering sacraments to known gangsters.

Okay, so it's still highly unlikely that the mob would take out the world's most famous Christian. But Francis might want to rethink his recent decision to dump his bulletproof-glass-enclosed Popemobile.

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