Sicilian archbishop bans mafia members from being godparents

(Reuters/Claudio Lattanzio/Files)Giuseppe Salvatore Riina (L), the son of the most feared Sicilian Mafia boss, leaves a prison in Sulmona, central Italy, in a February 28, 2008 file photo.

A bishop from Sicily has issued a diocesan decree that bans known mafia members from acting as godparents at baptisms.

Michele Pennisi, bishop of Monreale, near Palermo, said on Friday that the decree was intended to challenge any notion that mob bosses have a paternalistic side to them.

"The Mafia has always taken the term 'godfather' from the Church to give its bosses an air of religious respectability, whereas in fact the two worlds are completely incompatible," Pennisi told Agence France Presse.

His diocese encompasses Corleone, which was made famous as the birthplace of fictional mob boss Vito Corleone in Mario Puzo's "The Godfather."

The bishop admitted that his decree would be difficult to implement because of the culture of omerta or the law of silence, which has hampered Italy's efforts to crack down on organized crime.

"If someone has not been convicted we cannot judge people on rumors, without proof," said Pennisi, noting that the decree does not refuse Mafia members seeking to repent.

"If one of them admits to having done wrong, asks to be pardoned for the bad they have done, in that case we can discuss a path of conversion," he went on to say.

The bishop caught media attention in February when he castigated a priest for allowing Giuseppe Salvatore "Salvo" Riina, the son of Toto Riina, one of Sicily's most notorious mobsters, to act as a godfather at a baptism.

Salvo was arrested in 2002 and sentenced for crimes of Mafia association, extortion, drug trafficking and money laundering.

The son of the mob boss was prohibited from returning to Sicily when he was released from prison in 2011, but he was granted special permission by a court to return to his hometown of Corleone to attend his niece's baptism.

He was able to convince a priest to issue a declaration that he was a practicing Catholic in good standing and therefore a suitable godfather for his niece.

Upon learning of Salvo's role in the baptism, Pennisi denounced the act, saying it was "imprudent" and "reprehensible" to allow the son of the mob boss to act as a godfather in the baptism.

Pennisi's decree follows the teaching of Pope Francis who excommunicated the Calabrian Mafia known as the "'nDrangheta" in June 2014.

"The 'nDrangheta represents the adoration of evil and total contempt for the common good...Those who in their lives have chosen this path of evil are not in communion with God, they are excommunicated," the pope was quoted as saying.

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