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The prelate, the priest and the Mafia: For centuries Catholic leaders kept quiet - now Father Paolo daily risks his life to save young Sicilians from the godfathers

LUNCH is over and, amid riotous swarms of slum children, Father Paolo Turturro, the local parish priest, is walking the 50 yards from his day centre to the playgrounds. He is escorted by three crack Bersaglieri soldiers, tense, wary, all wearing bullet-proof vests, with machine-guns at the ready.

For five years this silver- haired, blue-eyed priest has been quietly taking the children of the Borgo Vecchio district of Palermo from the clutches of the Mafia. He brings them in from the streets where they learn to steal, peddle drugs and act as look-outs - the first steps to becoming picciotti, the killers and bosses of tomorrow.

The cost of this defiance shows in the bullet holes in a steel shutter, where someone shot at Father Paolo three years ago. Last month, Don Pino Puglisi, a colleague doing the same thing in the Mafia-infested Brancaccio area, was gunned down in front of his vicarage. Now the authorities have insisted on an armed guard.

High up in his glorious 12th- century cathedral, a few miles from Palermo, Monsignor Salvatore Cassisa, Archbishop of Monreale, is worried. He is under investigation on suspicion of having extracted large kick- b acks in exchange for contracts to restore the cathedral, a treasure house of famous mosaics made by Arab craftsmen for the Norman Crusader-colonisers.

He was denounced by one of his priests, Father Giuseppe Governanti, former president of the Sicilian church tribunal. In return, he dismissed Don Giuseppe from his parish, but was forced to reinstate him amid an outcry from the parishioners, the public and, it is believed, the Vatican.

The archbishop has long been close to those who wield power in Sicily. He headed Palermo's Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, a chivalrous order that goes back to the Crusades but nowadays is seen as a kind of secret Masonic lodge whose members - Mafia bosses, police chiefs, politicians, magistrates, secret service agents, etc - form a sinister network. Archbishop Cassisa does not need an armed guard. Don Paolo and the archbishop are the two faces of the Catholic church in Palermo, world capital of the Mafia. Don Paolo was one of the first of the city's anti- Mafia priests, who now number 40; the archbishop represents another tradition, still strongly entrenched, in which the clergy either ignores the Mafia, co-operates reluctantly or is actively involved.

Only 30 years ago, a previous Archbishop of Palermo, Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini, when asked by a northern journalist, 'Your eminence, what is the Mafia?' replied: 'For all I know, it is the name of a detergent.' Cardinal Ruffini maintained all his life that the Mafia was a myth got up by the communists who, to him, were the real villains on the island.

In past centuries, when Sicily lacked any real government by its various occupiers, it was natural for the clergy to co-operate with the local strongmen, who provided a rough justice and protection for the populace in return for silence and support. And it was a fact of life that in the large Sicilian families, some boys would become priests, others Mafiosi; sometimes they were both. More recently the church and the Mafia, for different reasons, had every interest in backing the Christian Democrat party.

The centuries-old silence of the church was broken only in 1982 when Archbishop Ruffini's successor, Cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo, appalled by the assassination of the anti-Mafia prefect of Palermo, Alberto Dalla Chiesa, preached a furious sermon against the Mafia. It was a turning-point, and the Mafia knew it. When, three months later, Cardinal Pappalardo went to celebrate Christmas mass at the notorious Ucciardone jail, the temporary residence of numerous Mafiosi, not one inmate turned up.

But change is slow in the church here. On the eve of the Pope's visit to the island in May, a group of priests and academics wrote to him complaining of 'alliances and collusion' between churchmen and the Mafia, and begging him to ask the culprits to step aside.

They were rewarded with afiery crusade across the island, culminating in an impassioned sermon in Agrigento. 'God has said thou shalt not kill,' the Pontiff thundered. 'No man, no human society, no Mafia can change or trample on this most holy law of God.' Holding up his cross, he cried out: 'In the name of this crucified Christ, I say to those responsible, 'Repent, for the love of God.' '

Don Paolo says that a number of priests who had been passive have started to speak out. But it was the death of Don Pino Puglisi that seemed to have the biggest impact, especially on ordinary people.

'We had 100 children before, and we thought fewer would come because the mothers would be afraid,' Don Paolo says. 'Now we have 150, and the number of those in the catechism class has doubled.'

On 31 October, All Souls Day, it is a Sicilian custom to make gifts to children, often toy weapons. Don Paolo offers to swap the guns for footballs, and each year makes a huge bonfire of the weapons in the name of peace. One year he lit the fire in front of the entrance to the Ucciardone, which is just across the street from his big modern church.

At 1pm, after school, the children have lunch at the day centre, then play football and basketball, followed by homework and activities until evening. Thus they stay off the street and are discouraged from dropping out of school (many still leave before they are 10).

Don Paolo and his volunteers teach them that violence, bullying, stealing and taking drugs are wrong. 'I was on the streets all the time,' says Giovanni, 14. 'Here I have learned not to swear, not to fight, not to touch drugs.'

Bright-eyed, vivacious and uproarious, these children are bewitching. 'They are far more intelligent than children from better-class neighbourhoods,' says Francesco Camillo, a law student who helps out. Don Paolo says: 'Their culture is zero. They know nothing. They are reserved. It takes time to win their trust. We have to take the ground from under the Mafia's feet,' It works.

When he and the children went to see the Pope in Rome, one of the boys sidled up to the Pontiff and handed him an exercise book. 'This is the diary my father kept,' he said. 'Now he is dead, and I want you to have it.' The Pope took it and read out a few lines. It contained notes of Mafia crimes and names of apparently respectable people involved.

Before the soldiers, in the days when the carabinieri guarded Don Paolo, a boy whose father had been killed by the Mafia, asked one of the policemen if he was the priest's friend. On hearing 'Yes,' he said: 'Then you are my friend' - and proceeded to do what no local child would previously have dared: he told the carabinieri everything they wanted to know about his father's death.

Such revelations do not go down well, and Don Paolo frequently receivesdeath threats, usually anonymous. One day, though, a man appeared in his office and said outright: 'You are a dead man.' 'I was terrified,' Don Paolo says, 'but the Lord gave me strength to overcome my fear, and I talked to him for half an hour.'

For Don Paolo the situation is simple. 'Nobody wants to be killed. But you have the choice: you announce (publicly accept) the Gospel or you don't. If you choose to announce, you risk being killed. If you don't, you kill your conscience, you kill truth.' He has accepted he may die. 'I have given my life to Christ.'

(Photographs omitted)