Rome. January 8, 2007. Priests are to work alongside Italian police officers to tackle a rising tide of crimes linked to devil worship.
The clerics have been seconded to the Squadra Anti Sette (SAS) anti-sect squad by the Vatican after Church officials became concerned about the number of churches being desecrated by Satanists. In recent months there have also been a string of murders that have been linked to devil worship.
One of the Vatican`s leading experts on Satanism and the occult, Don Oreste Benzi, has been brought in to liaise with police. He told The Sunday Telegraph that the natural curiosity of young people meant they were particularly attracted to the occult, and drugs were also used to influence and manipulate them.
"We will provide the units with priests who have experience in the field of devil worship and the occult," he said. "They will help the SAS to combat this problem, which is growing at an alarming rate across Italy.
"We are not just talking about murders but the psychological grip that these sects have on young people, especially taking them away from traditional social values and exposing them to all sorts of horrors.
"We estimate that there are at least 8,000 Satanic sects across the country with more than 600,000 members and the numbers are growing. That is why the Church is more than happy to help."
The nationwide operation will be centrally controlled from Rome by police chief Gianni de Gennaro. SAS units are expected to work with psychologists and the Vatican`s experts, while a special freephone hotline has been set up to report occult activities.
Many of the new wave of Satanists in Italy indulge in a potentially lethal blend of black magic, hard drugs, sex and heavy metal music. One recent murder case that dominated the headlines was the so-called "Beasts of Satan" trial of a group who bludgeoned two of their members before burying them alive in woods near Milan. Andrea Volpe, the Beasts of Satan ringleader, was given a life sentence, while his girlfriend, Elisabetta Ballarin, 19, was sentenced to 24 years. Also jailed was Nicola Sapone, 27, who was sentenced to 26 years. Their victims were Fabio Tollis, 16, and Chiara Marino, 19.
Police believe that there may be other victims of the sect buried in the woods, as several people are missing.
Police say that Satanists are particularly active in Piedmont, Veneto and Emilia Romagna in the north, and Tuscany, Umbria, Calabria and Puglia further south.
A police spokesman in Rome said: "The department of public security decided that a group should be created to deal with the Satanism and sects in Italy.
"In several cases we have seen criminal activity, including murder and sexual offences taking place in connection with these practices, and the unit will tackle these offences."
Occultists are predictably unhappy about the move.
Andrea Provera, who runs an occult shop in Turin, said: "We live in a lay state and a democracy so everyone is free to believe in what they want.
"If someone wants to worship their fridge because they are convinced it speaks or they want to worship Satan, then that`s their own business."
Civil rights groups have also expressed fears that the SAS may be used to begin investigations into the one million Italians who belong to minority religions.