The Catholic Church in Italy is facing an embarrassing scandal after the arrest of a priest accused of demanding sexual favors from immigrants seeking political asylum in Sicily.
The Rev. Sergio Librizzi, who was also the director of the Catholic charity Caritas in the Sicilian city of Trapani, was arrested at his parish on Tuesday as he was preparing for Mass.
Prosecutors charge that Librizzi sought sexual favors from newly arrived migrants fleeing the Middle East and Africa in exchange for help with residency visas, as well as from the poor who sought help from the charity.
The priest’s arrest is particularly embarrassing for the church given Pope Francis’ strong stand in support of the immigrants flooding the area. Soon after his election last year, Francis’ first pastoral visit outside Rome was to the island of Lampedusa, near Sicily, where he called for greater solidarity and an end to the “global indifference” over refugees.
There has been a surge in refugees fleeing conflict and poverty in Syria, Iraq and other countries. Last month, the Italian government said the number of refugees and other migrants reaching its shores had risen to more than 39,000 in the first half of 2014.
After Librizzi’s arrest, Bishop Pietro Maria Fragnelli suspended Librizzi and expressed his “shock and dismay” at the priest’s alleged wrongdoing.
“We express our firm condemnation of serious and reprehensible behavior, unacceptable not only because it may be a crime but because it offends the dignity of human beings and seriously damages the dignity of priestly service,” Fragnelli said in a statement.