Italian police arrest Catholic priest for helping mafia steal from migrant funds

(Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane)Migrants disembark from the Norwegian vessel Siem Pilot Stavanger in the Sicilian harbour of Palermo, Italy June 24, 2015.

Italian authorities have arrested a Catholic priest in the southern Italian region of Calabria for his alleged role in a mafia scheme to steal millions in public funds that were intended to help migrants.

The Arena clan, part of the Calabria-based 'Ndrangheta mafia, has reportedly stolen millions while running the Sant'Anna Cara facility in Isola di Capo Rizzuto, one of Italy's largest migrant reception centers, according to Russia Today.

The authorities stated that the mafia clan "controlled, for profit, the management of the reception center," which housed as many as 1,500 migrants at a time.

The police have arrested a total of 68 people, including a priest and the head of a huge Catholic volunteer group, "Mercy," in connection with the scheme.

"The welcome centre and 'Mercy' were the ATMs of the mafia," said Carabinieri Gen. Giuseppe Governale while announcing the arrests.

According to the police, Fr. Edoardo Scordio, a parish priest affiliated with "Mercy," was the "organiser of a true system of exploitation of public funds destined for the migrant emergency."

Catholic Herald reported that the priest allegedly pocketed €132,000 (US$146,000) in 2007 for the spiritual services he offered to migrants.

The authorities also arrested Leonardo Sacco, the head of the Catholic Misericordia association, which officially runs the migrant center.

Sacco is believed to be responsible for the clan winning contracts for supplying catering and other services to the center, enabling the mafia to pocket millions in EU funding intended for migrants.

The migrant center receives €16 million (US$17.5 million) each year to house and feed those living at the facility.

"The Cara of Isola Capo Rizzuto had become a money printing operation for organized crime thanks to the complicity of those who ran the center," said Rosy Bindi, the head of the Italian parliament's anti-mafia commission.

"This operation shows the ability of the mafia to take advantage of the weaknesses and fragility of our times with its predatory and parasitic approach," she added.

The Italian media has drawn attention to the mafia's scheme at the Sant'Anna Cara facility in the past. In 2015, L'Espresso magazine reported that the managers of the facility were pocketing funds that were intended for the care of migrants.

Crotone prefecture, where the center is located, stated in 2014 that the number of people registered at the center appeared to be inflated, with management pocketing around €10,000 ($10,969) a day for "ghost" migrants.

Following a health inspection in 2013, it was discovered that the migrants were being given tiny portions of out-of-date food. It was also revealed that the facility housed 70 unaccompanied minors who went barefoot and slept in a hangar with only two toilets.

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