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tv   The Pope and the Mafia  Al Jazeera  September 26, 2015 10:00pm-11:01pm EDT

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[singing] >> in june 2014, pope francis launched a passionate attack on an organization responsible for a century long trail of blood: the mafia.
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>> the excommunication of all mafiosi sent shockwaves around the world. the last time a pope took on the mafia, bombs exploded outside italian churches. mafiosi are profoundly religious. but in this film, we will show how they are profoundly cynical in the way they use religion to justify their power. and the reason they could get away with that is that for decades there was a marriage of political convenience that locked the mafia and the church together. >> the results of this unholy marriage? mafiosi have taken control of religious festivals; men of the cloth have colluded with men of honor; the vatican bank has laundered the mafia's money; and priests have been murdered for taking a stand against crime bosses.
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>> my name is john dickie. i've spent 15 years studying italian organized crime. now, i am investigating the ties that bind the mafia to the catholic church and what it will take to sever them. >> my journey to the front line of the pope's showdown with the mafia starts in southern italy. from naples to sicily, organized crime is here a permanent emergency. calabria, the region at the toe of italy's boot, is home to what is today its most dangerous mafia: the 'ndranghetista. since the early 1990s, the 'ndranghetista has overtaken sicily's cosa nostra as a major wholesale importer of cocaine to europe.
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violence is the basis of everything the 'ndranghetista does. men, women and children have been killed without hesitation or pity. it is here in calabria that pope francis threw down his gauntlet. >> it was the murder of a 3 year old child that brought pope francis to calabria. coco campolongo was in the care of his grandfather, a drug dealer who was on the verge of collaborating with the authorities. in january 2014, coco and his grandfather were shot dead by an 'ndranghetista hit squad and their bodies burned.
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this awful crime drove francis to do something that no pope had ever done before. he excommunicated mafiosi. >> excommunication is a very old tool that the pope and his bishops use to censure those who have committed grave crimes against faith or life. trying to kill the pope or breaking the seal of confession gets you excommunicated. martin luther and galileo were excommunicated for heresy. more recently doctors who practice abortion have been castigated in the same way. the papacy's political enemies have also been targeted: napoleon and communists, for instance; and even the whole of venice in the middle ages. when you are excommunicated, you are not allowed to take
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communion and the holy sacraments of marriage and church burial can be denied. you are on your way to hell, and the only way to avoid damnation is to repent and seek absolution from your bishop. >> giacomo galeazzi is what they call in italy, a vaticanista, a vatican watcher. he was there when pope francis made his homily. it was clear to him that pope francis was not just talking to mafiosi but also to priests. >> i realized that the priests in attendance were rather disconcerted, because they were afraid this would divide their communities. from now on, no priest, no bishop can say, "i didn't know". churchmen will no longer be able to muddle through in a grey area where they can turn a blind eye to where the money in the collection plate is coming from.
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that's the kind of thing that happens in many "souths" around the world: not just in southern italy, but also in the south america of the drug traffickers, for instance. there is no better place to find out how the mafia reacted to pope francis' words than in this high security prison. >> it is also a very good place to get a sense of how some priests are reacting. >> here 70% of the inmates are sworn members of the ndranghetista. >> the most direct question was, "well, does that mean we can't go to mass any more, we can't come to church, we can't even pray? because if we've been excommunicated, we're not allowed to turn to the lord."
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i cannot make distinctions, i can't withhold the sacraments from or excommunicate 'ndranghetisti as opposed to other prisoners. the task of a priest and the church in prison is not to judge anyone individual. it's to be a guiding presence in the lives of those who have been judged to be members of the ndranghetista. >> this chaplain is in a vulnerable position, caught between the need to obey the pope and the frightening consequences of standing up to the 'ndranghetista. but my sense from talking to him is that he's completely watered down the excommunication. >> pope francis is facing a huge challenge. only the year before he was elected, a priest here had been arrested for collusion with the 'ndranghetista, while another one testified in court on behalf of three mobsters. police surveillance cameras even captured a summit between 'ndranghetista bosses that took
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place during a pilgrimage. >> men representing bosses from all over the world went to the sanctuary at polsi to greet the presiding boss and kiss his ring. this is a gesture of submission, a way of recognizing his investiture as boss. it took a century and a half for a pope to excommunicate the mafia. at long last, after pope francis's visit, calabrian bishops came out with a document denouncing the 'ndranghetista, one that contained the word 'ndranghetista for the first time. but this was in 2015! >> i believe so.
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>> for me the roots of this collusion are in sicily. this is the home of cosa nostra, traditionally the mightiest of italy's mafias. from extortion to trafficking heroin to the united states, the sicilian mafia has spent 150 years as a leader in criminal markets. its power rests ultimately on killing with impunity. being here plunges me back into cosa nostra's most savage era, the 1980's when hundreds died in a mafia war that saw bodies left burning in the street, buried in concrete, dumped in the sea, or cut up and fed to the pigs.
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>> this is bagheria, a working-class neighborhood just east of palermo... and this is a former nail factory. i have heard about this place, although i have never actually been here and it might what i have read or it might be the smell of the rubbish burning in the yard here, but i actually feel pretty sick.
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this is where cosa nostra made its problems disappear.
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>> the homeless... it's not always who you think. >> the majority are families with children. >> a growing epidemic that impacts us all. >> i think it's the most helpless feeling i've ever experienced. >> but who's getting rich while some are just trying to survive? >> they want to make the city for people that can afford things. >> "faultlines". al jazeera america's hard-hitting... >> today they will be arrested. >> ground-breaking... >> they're firing canisters of gas at us. >> award winning investigative documentary series. this is where cosa nostra made its problems disappear.
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this is a torture chamber. the victims were brought here, tortured by mafiosi and then under the floor here there was a tank that was filled with acid. and this is where after the victims had been killed the bodies were thrown to make the evidence disappear. one mafioso who turned state's evidence used the best phrase for this place is, he called it: "cosa nostra's extermination camp". >> nobody knows how many people died here. the walls don't talk. but amid the horror, the code of omerta broke; and the men who perpetrated atrocities like this spoke for the first time about the twisted but central role that religion plays in their lives.
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>> one man in particular was as devoted to his bible as he was to his gun. he committed his first murder in 1983 when he was just 24 years old. by the time he was arrested only a few kilometers away from here, he had become one of the richest and most powerful figures in cosa nostra. this house used to belong to the
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mafia boss pietro aglieri who spent more than half his life on the run from the law. and this is where one of his many hideouts was. now as you can see it, it is falling to bits at the moment, nobody has been inside for years. in fact nobody has ever filmed in here. the house is in a terrible state, abandoned furniture... i think it is advisable a helmet on at this point, you don't know what could happen in there. for all the mess and the rat excrement, it does looks like this place was abandoned in a hurry.
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>> exploring this house is like peering into aglieri's mind... it's clear that his religious faith was not just for show. he was a murderer, but he was also very devout. this looks like his books here. a book by a priest "the servant of charity". this is another one. it is in a box. a book of liturgy, of prayers. this is the kind of book that a priest would have i think. >> aglieri was educated in a seminary and evidently, for him, a life on the run did not mean a life without faith. >> this is interesting, two identical christs and a rosary.
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it's really a bit spooky to think that this guy was a merchant of death and that he surrounded himself with religious images. and in fact when he was caught, the police found him in a hideout equipped with a full-scale chapel and four priests had apparently come to perform mass for him there. one of those priests was arrested. >> cosa nostra entered the life of father mario frittitta when a member of aglieri's gang knocked on the door of his church near palermo docks. >> he said: "father, i need you. there's a very important and well-known man." "and who would that be?" "no, i can't tell you his name.
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but he needs you. he needs to meet you and open his heart; he wants to receive communion; he wants to meet with christ again. what do you say?" >> a few days later, father frittitta found himself in a car heading to the hideout of one of italy's most notorious fugitives. >> he didn't tell me where he was going, but just to trust him, and that we were going to see aglieri. "aglieri!" i said: "good! a big fish," i said. >> when father frittitta entered a cottage on the outskirts of bagheria, he found something that no one would ever expect in a mafia boss' hideout. an entire chapel, complete with an altar, a holy water stout, bowls for the wafers and cups for the wine... >> he even had church kneelers! i was astonished. where had he got them? then i realized that other priests had been there and had visited him.
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and before mass, i heard his confession and those of three other men who were with him. i was moved. i was with these unusual people, who were wanted men. above all, it was a very intense experience, because i could see what an experience it was for them. just imagine: they stayed on their knees the whole time. >> aglieri now goes to mass in jail. he was arrested in 1997 and sentenced to prison for life. father frittitta was charged with aiding and abetting a fugitive. he served time, but was eventually declared innocent. >> why should i feel guilty for going to see someone...? i had the chance and i took it.
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i don't deal with the mafia. i'd even say it doesn't interest me. i deal with sin, so i oppose the mafia in the same way as i oppose abortion, divorce, any other sin. but i don't oppose sinners. i go towards them, i have to make them my friends, i have to make them my brothers. i have to help them. sure, tv has evolved over the years.
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it's hard to deny that priests like father frittitta are doing the right thing according to catholic doctrine. minister to the sinner and try to bring him back to the right path. but when it comes to the mafia, this approach is often in direct conflict with the church's responsibility to society. >> when pietro aglieri was arrested, he became a theology student and decided that he would never cooperate with the authorities, thus allowing his accomplices to continue killing and trafficking drugs. thus frittitta's "pupil", as it were, had followed his teaching: what matters isn't repenting in the eyes of men, but in the eyes of god.
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>> the mafia bloodbath of the 1980s spurred the state into action. the centre piece of that action was the palermo maxi-trial, which began in 1986. the 476 men on trial were so dangerous that a special courtroom was built. >> i have to admit that just being here gives me goosebumps. this is palermo's famous bunker courtroom. now, these walls are bomb proof and over there, there was a passageway that led straight into the bowels of the city's prison so that there could be no chance of escape for the defendants. but it is not the impressive architecture that makes this place so special,
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it is the sense of history. >> the bosses of the commission, cosa nostra's ruling body, were put on trial in this fortress. and it is here that we learnt their secret rituals. for instance, the induction into the mafia is called a baptism. most of the accused displayed some twisted form of faith. men like michele greco, known as "the pope", who maintained that he was as devoted as any of the occupants of st peter's throne. when the judges retired to consider their verdict, he bestowed a chilling blessing on them.
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>> pope francis is going to have a hard time convincing mafiosi that their version of faith is not buying them a ticket to paradise. because for the mafia, religion is about more than prayer books, altars and rituals. every february, a million people gather in the eastern sicilian city of catania for the festival of saint agatha. there are firework displays to see, and traditional horse-meat steaks to eat. some worshipers show their devotion by carrying giant candles.
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the festival of santa agata means everything to the people here, but it also means a lot of to the mafia. of course crime bosses are always attracted when there is a lot of money changing hands. but for them the festival represents an unmissable opportunity to parade their power and to make it seem respectable. >> chief police investigator antonio salvago has been monitoring mafia activities at the festival for years. >> there are a number of different mafia groups in catania. and for one of them to have the power to make the procession halt in a particular place is a way of showing that, there and then, it has control of the city... one leading figure in the catania mafia managed divert one
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of the giant candelabras from the procession out into the suburbs, well away from its normal path. the aim was to ratify the santapaola-ercolano gang's dominance over a part of the city that has been their stronghold for a long time. >> these photos were taken during the festival, here the police identified two important mobsters carrying the saint's relics. and in this one, there's even a mobster that managed to climb up the carriage, taking the place normally occupied by the priest. that's how the festival of sant'agata - the third biggest event of this kind in the world
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- became the first to be put on trial for links to the mafia. >> in the trial, we didn't receive a clear reply from the then bishop, bishop bommarito... i think that was because, at the time, the church seriously undervalued just what a huge problem there is with mafia groups using religious festivals to bolster their authority. >> michele pennisi is the bishop of monreale, the largest and
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richest diocese in sicily. he has been threatened by the mafia, and has taken a stand against their infiltration of religious celebrations. >> here in monreale i issued a decree stating that members of the mafia are not allowed to belong to the confraternities that organize festivals. >> the majority of the clergy, as well as the confraternities, accepted it with good grace. but there has also been resistance. often it's not open resistance, but underhand... usually it derives from wanting to live a quiet life, to let sleeping dogs lie. because many mafiosi are benefactors to the local church. benefactors, above all, when they sponsor religious festivals, by paying for fireworks, for example...
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and often because the mafia has power over a city it can be convenient. >> the unholy alliance between the church and the mafia was forged in the wake of ww2. the allies had liberated sicily from fascism. but the chaos of war and the naivety of the british and the americans enabled the mafia to grab weapons, power and profit. one man in particular spotted an opportunity not to be missed. michele navarra was a mafia boss and a doctor to boot. he got on so well with the allies that they gave him an exclusive deal to use their old military vehicles to start a bus
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company. now that bus company is still today the biggest in sicily. in fact, it is the one that runs between palermo and doctor navarra's hometown, corleone.
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>> corleone owes its worldwide fame to the fictitious don vito from the godfather...but in italy, it's been far more notorious as the home of cosa nostra's bloodiest family. when the second world war ended, michele navarra was in charge here. his next move was to be political terrorism: an attack on left-wing peasants.
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>> immediately after the war, sicily was divided. on one side, there was the peasant movement made up of thousands of poor country people who had always dreamt of having a piece of land: on the other side, there were the big landowners who feared losing their ancient feudal privileges. these landowners turned to the mafiosi who managed their estates to help them hang onto their power. michele navarra, insofar as he was the mafia boss of corleone, was the person to go to for the big landowners who wanted to stop the peasant movement by any means necessary. >> the 1948 election offered michele navarra the chance to make more political friends. it was italy's first national poll since the start of the cold war. voters had to choose between the communists and socialists on one side and on the other the
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christian democrats backed by the church. >> michele navarra lined up with the christian democrats. and obviously this cemented the alliance between the christian democrats, the church, the mafia and the big landowners. their aim was to thwart the red menace at all costs... >> in rome, pope pius xii weighed in, excommunicating all communists. in corleone, as in the rest of sicily, clergy and crime chiefs were united in their fight against communism, and backed the same candidates. michele navarra was a regular worshipper at this corleone church and a generous benefactor. at election time, he raked in the votes for the christian democrats. so when he finally met his end - 96 bullets were found in his
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body - the church rewarded his life-long devotion with a sumptuous funeral. one morning in september 1980, two men came to this monastery just as the friars had finished celebrating mass. all the witnesses could only say later that one was about 30 the other a bit older. they asked for brother giacinto and when they were shown up to his first floor apartment, as soon as he opened the door, they shot him five times in the head. this was a murder that opened a window on a dark pattern of relationships linking the mafia, politics and the church.
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>> the dead man, brother giacinto, was no ordinary monk and had a relaxed take on his vow of poverty. francesco nicastro was one of the first journalists on the scene. >> he lived a wealthy lifestyle, not at all like his brother monks. there were tailor-made clothes, french perfumes, bottles of whisky, and a pistol, as well as 4 million lire in cash, a lot of money at the time. brother giacinto had a dense network of contacts with politics, with society, but, above all, with the mafia. >> mafia, christian democrats and the catholic church: an unholy trinity that ruled sicily
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for four decades. take vito ciancimino. the first politician ever sent to prison for colluding with the mafia. for decades, he'd been the link between city government, the construction industry, and cosa nostra. >> in 2009, vito ciancimino's son, massimo, decided to collaborate with the authorities. he explained what he had seen and heard when he went along to meetings with his father. >> personally i will never forget the time when we arrived at a bishop's residence near palermo. we went in through a back entrance, and there we found bernardo provenzano and the bishop sitting, waiting to speak with my father. >> bernardo provenzano would only be arrested in 2006 after a record 43 years as a wanted man.
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he was the political mastermind behind the all-powerful corleone family. >> it was a high-level meeting, but each of them knew the importance of the other, and this was also obvious from how they greeted each other--with hugs, and kisses on the cheek. >> for him, parishes operated in a similar way to local branches of the christian democrat party. the parishes had to be financed. my father built a church at passo di rigano. he issued a permit to build football pitches to one church. he continually worked through the church to keep control of his territory. >> vito ciancimino's influence reached as far as rome. according to his son, the mafia's favourite politician went there almost every month, to deposit dirty money in the ior--the vatican bank. >> the ior didn't impose any rules on transparency, the ior did not give out any information. i saw vast amounts of money
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circulating in vatican bank safe-deposit boxes and accounts: these were financial transactions to pay bribes both for politicians and for men linked to the world of the mafia. >> some have questioned how reliable a witness massimo ciancimino is. but prosecutors think he's trustworthy. after all, when it comes to mafia money, the vatican bank has form. in fact, so much scandal has over the years surrounded the ior that one of pope francis's first initiative when he arrived in st peter's square was to order a massive clean up of its operations. as of 2015, the vatican bank has ended its relationship with 750 clients and banking secrecy is being lifted. >> vito ciancimino was arrested in 1984 just as a new war was
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raging in sicily. the fiercest of mafia clans had decided to take control of cosa nostra. in one bloody decade, over a thousand people died: mafia bosses, their soldiers and their relatives were ruthlessly cut down as the corleonesi exterminated their rivals. and when anyone dared to stand up to the mafia, they too were targeted: magistrates, policemen, doctors, journalists, and honest politicians were killed. >> finally, in 1992, the crime bosses decided to rid themselves of their two most feared enemies, antimafia judges who had been responsible for bringing many hundreds of mafiosi to justice: giovanni falcone and paolo borsellino.
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the bombs that killed them, 2 months apart, also killed falcone's wife and 8 brave bodyguards. never had cosa nostra attacked the state with such flagrant brutality. sicilians had had enough. and, with the cold war now over, the church's conscience began to stir. this is brancaccio, a palermo suburb where in places there are third world levels of poverty. but it was here after decades and decades of comfortable silence from the church that one priest began to speak out. and in so doing, he made the mafia fear him. his name was father pino puglisi.
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>> gregorio porcaro worked on these streets with father puglisi. one day we saw father puglisi appear with his face all swollen because they'd beaten him up, punched him, threatening him... some of our kids were threatened with knives: "you need to stop talking to these priests, you need to come to us!" these were very clear signals... >> when we saw the total lack of interest, almost the indifference of the church hierarchy, i would complain to father puglisi. "we're being left on our own here.
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maybe we're pushing it too far. sooner or later, the mafia's going to react." and he'd reply: "what are you worried about? what can they do to us? kill us? and if they kill us, what have they achieved?" >> the sicilian church was at a crossroads. communism had gone and with it, the political reasons for ignoring the cosa nostra. but it lacked father puglisi's clear vision of the mafia as an evil and failed to back him. john paul ii was much more decisive. in 1993, he went to sicily and uttered a ringing condemnation. he was the first pope ever to mention the word mafia.
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>> i died and came back to life... but yet still wanted to get high. >> i have prostituted. >> for drugs? >> for drugs, yeah. >> we're dealing with the worst drug epidemic in united states' history. >> she said "dad, please don't leave me here".
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i said "honey, i don't have any choice". >> pope francis's motion u.s. visit in philadelphia. a key message today: the contributions of immigrants in america. >> translator: many of you have immigrated to this country at great personal cost. but in the hope of building a new life. >> at the white house a clash of wills between barack obama and the president of


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