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Kids Avoid Mafia Life In Sicily

By Richard L. WentworthSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 16, 1995


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.

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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.

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.