Kids Avoid Mafia Life In Sicily

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE maximum-security Ucciardone prison, packed with Mafiosi, stands directly across the street from his church. But the Rev. Paolo Turturro says he loves Palermo's Borgo Vecchio neighborhood anyway.

The water comes here only once or twice a week, and it's not potable. A child plies the decrepit street behind the church on a motor scooter. And three or four rifle-toting soldiers stand guard in front of the Santa Lucia Church, solemn evidence of how irritating Fr. Turturro's presence here is.

Turturro is one of Palermo's anti-Mafia Roman Catholic priests. He got right to work on his arrival in the Sicilian capital in 1988, persuading the city to bring a junior high school to the 16th century Borgo Vecchio. The free meals he provided the schoolchildren began attracting them to his church, which, because it was built only in 1963, had never really been accepted by residents.

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Turturro found that children as young as 10 were involved in drug dealing and money laundering, and he yearned to help them. He began asking them if they would trade their pistols - some real, some toys - for a ball.

"With this game, we took the children off the streets," he says. "They all came to us, to play basketball, to have lunch, to have toys, to go to school, to get some culture."

Activism of the Turturro kind is viewed dimly by Cosa Nostra, as the Sicilian Mafia is known. In September 1993, Mafia hit men assassinated the Rev. Giuseppe Puglisi, who was doing similar things in a nearby part of town.

Turturro says his work of offering young people a different kind of life cut in half the drugs and prostitution in the neighborhood. Mafia bosses moved to other parts of town. Some even converted to Catholicism, including one of the killers of revered anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone, assassinated in May 1992.

"This game of getting the kids off the streets created a conscience in the people" in the neighborhood, Turturro says. "The people of Palermo today reject the Mafia, reject drugs, reject corrupt politicians."

Why doesn't Turturro just preach on Sunday and forget the after-school activities and denunciations of the Mafia? "I've never seen Jesus in the church," he says. "For the more than 33 years that Jesus lived, he was always in the middle of the square, in the middle of the streets, to preach and bring his love to the people: the blind, the lame, the sick, the scribes, and the Pharisees, even to the bad guys and the irreligious."

The Rev. Ennio Pintacuda, one of Palermo Mayor Leoluca Orlando's most trusted counselors, agrees. He speaks in a receiving room at the Casa Professa, around the corner from City Hall. His bodyguards wait outside.

The anti-Mafia struggle is a pastoral issue, Fr. Pintacuda says, especially since Pope John Paul II's May 1993 visit to Sicily in which he broke the traditional papal silence about the Mafia, delivering a stinging denunciation of Cosa Nostra as the work of the devil.

Pintacuda is a Jesuit, as members of the Society of Jesus are known. His religious order is noted for its dedication to education and to sophisticated intellectual arguments.

Pintacuda has for years run a school of political training, in which he tries to introduce a culture of clean government and teaches pupils to take a side and be consistent and intransigent in their principles. But taking a stand was not easy in the early days, when only the Italian Communist Party was clearly anti-Mafia, and when many members of the Catholic-inspired Christian Democrat Party colluded with Cosa Nostra.

"In 1968 to '72, those few of us priests who were working against the Mafia were judged in a totally negative way by most of the ecclesiastical world, which defined us as much closer to the Communists than to the church," Pintacuda says.

He has since had the satisfaction of witnessing a sea change in public opinion.

"The schools have produced in the young people a mentality in regard to the Mafia that is different from what our generation had," says Pintacuda, who went to elementary school in the 1940s.

"The one big problem is if they reject Mafia violence but accept the business side - the financial capabilities of the Mafia, especially with the economic crisis, the lack of work."

Pintacuda has lost many friends over the years. His 1993 book "The Choice" is full of the names of politicians, judges, and policemen he knew who were assassinated by Cosa Nostra. "I'm more and more alone," he says. "But also many friends have been lost because many were frightened and thought that it was more convenient to act in another way."

One of his remaining friends is the Rev. Giacomo Ribaudo, whose Church of the Most Holy Trinity is in the Magione section of town, where the late Judge Falcone played as a child with his friend, Paolo Borsellino, a leading anti-Mafia judge assassinated two months after Falcone.

Vacant lots and decaying buildings surround the church. The Magione is another neighborhood hit by American bombers in World War II and never rebuilt.

Fr. Ribaudo is involved in opening long-closed churches in the neighborhood to visitors. He supports the "Palermo Opens Its Doors" movement, which encourages schoolchildren to "adopt" a city monument and to study and write about it. Palermo's children need a deeper sense of culture, he says.

"The Mafia takes root and dominates above all where there's no one who knows how to think with his own head and act according to criteria of freedom," Ribaudo says.

Ribaudo says he has never been threatened and never been offered a security detail. The secret to his work, he says, is love.

"A priest can't limit himself to going into the pulpit and saying, 'Love your brethren, and go home.' A priest, if he goes into the pulpit, also has to suggest the ways in which we love each other," Ribaudo says. "And when the civilizing power of love becomes widespread, that's the greatest thing we can do to combat the Mafia."

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