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Mafia boss threatens anti-mob activist priest

Pope Francis receives stole that belonged to priest killed by mafia during prayer service in Rome (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The Italian bishops’ conference has sent a message of solidarity to Father Luigi Ciotti, founder of Libera, a network of Italian anti-Mafia associations, following an apparent threat to his life from a Sicilian Mafia boss.

Police in Palermo, Sicily, overheard Salvatore (“Toto'”) Riina, 83, imprisoned boss of the Corleone organization, tell a fellow prisoner that Father Ciotti, 68, was “a priest to be eliminated” and “akin to Don Pino Puglisi.” The Catholic church itself, he said, “is interfering.”

Father Giuseppe (“Pino”) Puglisi, murdered on his 56th birthday in 1993, was the first declared Catholic martyr to have been killed by the Mafia; he was beatified by Pope Francis on May 25, 2013.

On that occasion, the Pope called Blessed Puglisi “exemplary,” especially for his efforts to educate youth. “He helped free them from a life of crime and, for this, they (the Mafia) tried to defeat him by killing him,” said the Pope. “But in reality it was he who won through the risen Christ.”

Every March 21, Libera observes a day in memory of innocent victims of organized crime. This year, Pope Francis joined Father Ciotti on that date for a prayer vigil with family members of Mafia victims, where the Pope implored mobsters to “change your lives, convert, stop doing evil” and turn away from the road to hell.

Although Riina’s overheard remarks were made in September 2013, Father Ciotti did not learn of the threat to his life till this summer, when an Italian journalist phoned him asking for comment.

Court records show Italy’s Interior Ministry knew of Riina’s threat several months earlier.

Father Ciotti, who already has two bodyguards, told the Italian daily La Repubblica that the authorities’ silence showed a “lack of respect for the two policemen who accompany me every day.”

The threats, he went on to say, “extend to all those, in these twenty years of Libera, who have committed themselves to justice and dignity in our country. Only through working together can we oppose the Mafias and corruption.”

Riina, nicknamed “the Beast,” is believed to have killed several dozen people personally and to have ordered the deaths of countless others. He is serving two life sentences in a maximum-security prison.