Italy gripped by tale of the priest, his lover – and the property developer

Church suspends cleric over affair, but, he says, allegations were concocted to ease land deal
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The Independent Online

Don Sante Sguotti has finally got his marching orders. The 41-year-old priest, whose entanglement with a woman in the village where he was a parish priest for eight years has been splashed across the Italian media, was informed that he is no longer permitted to carry out any of his priestly functions.

The "a divinis" order follows his removal as parish priest of Monterosso in August. "I was expecting [the suspension order] before now," he said. "Everything will continue as before. I am not thinking of appealing because it would be a waste of time. In my life nothing will change. I remain a priest."

Italy has had more than its share of priestly sex scandals in recent months. One involved an elderly celebrity priest who runs a chain of rehab centres for drug addicts, and who is under investigation for allegedly abusing young men in his charge.

In Don Sguotti's case the novelty is that he denies the charges against him – that he is living in sin with a local woman called Laura, with whom he has a one-year-old baby – yet admits stoutly that he is in love with her, but wishes to live with her "chastely", while remaining a priest.

He wants to have his cake and celebrate Eucharist – to have the wife drunk and the wine bottle full, as the Italian proverb has it.

"Canon law does not forbid a priest to fall in love or become engaged in a celibate manner," he insists.

"I want to remain in the church so I will obey the celibacy rule." And God, he maintained, was on his side.

"Falling in love is a fundamental stage in life. A person cannot be a good priest or nun or anything else in life unless he has experienced love at least once."

Don Sguotti remains highly popular in his parish: young people in the village have taken to wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan, "Don Sante is my father".

At a village meeting held in the church last month, more than 200 villagers voted in his favour and only 17 against. He declared that he would remain at his post until 40 parishioners – 5 per cent of the village – had signed a petition to demand he leave. Forty signatures have now been collected, and he says he will leave before the end of the year.

But the same meeting revealed what appear to be the sordid roots of the affair. A psychotherapist called Armando Villani tried to make a statement to the village meeting but was angrily chased out by Don Sguotti's supporters.

Mr Villani wants to buy a patch of land in Monterosso that belongs to the church. Don Sguotti does not want the church to part with it, and has been fighting to stop Mr Villani buying it – in fact one of the conditions he gave to his bishop for quitting the parish was that the church does not sell the land.

Don Sguotti maintains that Mr Villani invented the story that the priest had fathered a child in order to get him kicked out of the village, so the sale of the land could go ahead.

Expelled from the meeting, Mr Villani defiantly told reporters what he had been intending to tell the village – that the whole business was much worse than they thought: Don Sguotti had had a previous relationship "for two years, terminated a year and a half-ago", with a woman who he hoped would give him a baby.

She ended up "in a grave state of prostration" and attempted suicide, he added.

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