Vigilantes guard priests targeted by armed robbers
By Bruce Johnston in Rome
PARISHIONERS in a sleepy Tuscan hamlet have responded to two armed robberies against priests in the space of two days by forming an armed vigilante group to act as bodyguard to the priests and their church.
The unprecedented step, and calls for the local population to dust down their shotguns, has transformed the village of Ortonovo, near La Spezia, into an outpost worthy of an episode of the classic western series, Bonanza.
It was the attack against Fr Ludovico Cappellini, 77, that proved the last straw for the community, amid an alarming growth in violent crime in which isolated priests are proving an easy target.
Woken by an assistant who complained of hearing noises in the middle of the night, Fr Ludovico was surprised at the weekend by a man brandishing a gun, who warned the priest that he would shoot him unless he handed over money.
But when the robber and his accomplices satisfied themselves with the equivalent of £200 from the poor box, and Fr Ludovico, a heart patient with a pacemaker, became visibly ill, the intruder, after first tying him to a chair, saved the priest's life by telephoning for an ambulance.
Police said that the call, made on a mobile phone, could be traced — and could reveal the identity of the robber.
But the unusually happy twist in events did little to allay the parishioners' fears.
The hold-up came only 24 hours after another nearby, when Fr Luigi Gando was stabbed in the chest with a screwdriver.
Fr Gando, 68, was recovering in hospital this week after being tied up and gagged by three men in the presbytery of the Church of San Martino in the village of Costa di Framura.
The assailants, however, are thought to have fled only after the priest managed to untie himself and sound the electronic bells of his church.
Helped by powerful torches, firemen then joined a posse made up of police and concerned locals, who penetrated a thick wood were the intruders had fled.
The hunt continues.
In the meantime, locals have formed vigilante groups to take turns standing guard in front of Fr Ludovico's presbytery.
This week the aged priest was stoical. "I have already forgiven them," he said, "especially because they were gentlemen, in the way they called for the doctor.
"They are poor, simple thieves. I tried not to look in the eyes of the one who threatened me for fear of a vendetta.
He added: "Let's just say it was a new experience. I have been robbed three or four times already but this is the first time I had caught anyone red-handed.