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The priest who fights sex traders beside the seaside

Don Oreste Benzi's mission is to help the prostitutes and trans- sexuals of Rimini. Andrew Gumbel joined one of his forays
It Is 1am on a forlorn industrial estate on the outskirts of Rimini, Italy's tackiest seaside resort, now at the height of its tourist season. Every hundred yards or so stands a group of two or three prostitutes, their impossibly high platform shoes and outlandish peroxide hair illuminated in the headlights of countless four-wheel-drive cars being driven in slow procession by young men on the prowl.

A white estate car draws up in front of a group of trans-sexuals and - to general astonishment - an elderly priest in a slightly creased cassock jumps out of the front seat. "Hello, I'm Don Oreste Benzi," he says. "How are you?"

From the look of bewilderment in the prostitutes' eyes you can tell what they are thinking. What does this guy want? Sex? No, Don Oreste wants to talk to them. And, if they are willing, pray with them. And, once they have got to know each other better, encourage them to leave the street and help them find a regular way of life.

At first the prostitutes are suspicious, then they begin to talk about themselves, where they come from, what they did before coming here in a deluded search for a better life. One was a student, another a nurse. As the conversation warms up, Don Oreste's assistants get out of the car too and give each of the prostitutes a string of rosary beads, which they willingly hang around their necks.

An assistant called Mirko who knows the street well asks after other prostitutes who work this stretch of road - Andressa, Jennifer, Claudia and the rest. He sounds disconcertingly like a well-soiled regular customer, but in fact he considers them all to be his sisters and friends.

By now quite a crowd is forming. A police patrol car, which had sat quite indifferent to the illegal trade all around, crawls up to see what is going on. Don Oreste emerges from the huddle, smiles and waves. "Oh, it's you," says the carabinieri officer. "I thought this was some kind of clandestine meeting." And with that he drives off again.

The 70-year-old Don Oreste has become something of a folk hero, not only in Rimini, where he runs the thriving working-class Parish of the Resurrection, but in the whole of Italy, where he has campaigned tirelessly to free prostitutes from the insidious rackets controlling them. "Night after night these women are treated as pieces of meat," he says. "They are glad to have someone to talk to who makes them feel human. I'm interested in helping, not converting them. If they are Catholic, fine. If not, I'm not trying to buy anybody's soul."

His world-wide foundation, the John XXIII Association, has been looking after the underclass in all its forms since 1968; its work with prostitutes, most from Albania and the Third World, has soared in recent years as Italy has grown as a destination for illegal immigrants, including criminal gangs.

The prostitutes he brings off the streets are first housed in one of the Association's so-called "family households": commune-like religious groups whose members have often taken voluntary vows of poverty and chastity. The women, and occasionally men, are then helped to obtain proper residence papers, if possible, and given a start in the job market - usually as maids or waitresses. In the past few months alone, when a special Italian decree law was offering to regularise immigrants who come forward to declare themselves, Don Oreste and his team have helped more than 200 women.

At first, the ex-prostitutes are terrified of being pursued, and a handful have vanished without warning. The long-term threats seem to be limited, however; Don Oreste himself has received menacing phone calls but, so far, nothing worse.

Don Oreste comes across as a man of deep convictions, genuine commitment and boundless energy, but his working methods - stalking the lurid streets of Rimini - can hardly be said to be orthodox. Perhaps the only precedent is William Gladstone, whose night-time prowls round Soho in the 1840s and 1850s for much the same purpose earned him ridicule and not a little suspicion as to his true motives. Italy in the 1990s may not be as prurient as Victorian England, but Don Oreste's work is far from understood.

The Vatican, although recognising his association and putting no obstacles in his way, has maintained a stony silence. The traditionalist Bishop of Rimini has not lifted a finger to help. The police and justice systems, meanwhile, seem reluctant to treat the growing trade in prostitution as anything more than the regular continuation of the world's oldest profession. They apply no pressure whatsoever on the customers, most of whom - perhaps surprisingly - are in their early twenties. There is even talk of re-legalising brothels, which were outlawed in 1958.

"Reopening the brothels is a very convenient solution because it takes the women off the street and out of sight of decent people. Even some of my colleagues in the Church advocate it," Don Oreste said. "But it also condones the fundamental evil of prostitution. People distinguish between prostitutes who work freely and those who are forced, but in my experience they are always forced, one way or another."

Don Oreste's work has revealed a wealth of evidence about the two main prostitution rackets in Italy, one operated from Albania and the other from Nigeria. In both cases, the women are promised real jobs and incur large debts to be offered passports, visas and air tickets (often with the help of corrupt Italian consular officials, as a foreign ministry investigation is discovering).

The Albanians remain under the direct control of the racketeers, while the Nigerians are sold on to local madams, usually ex-prostitutes themselves. Often, a woman will be given a deadline to produce a huge quantity of money, forcing her to work up to 18 hours a day. Those who fail to meet the deadline can be beaten up or mutilated with cigarette butts or hot irons.

So powerful is the testimony that Don Oreste has gathered that in a recent trial of madams in Rimini, the charges were changed in mid-investigation from procurement to slave-trading. They were all convicted, but such trials are still rare in Italy. "There are a lot of chauvinist attitudes about," Don Oreste said.

In the meantime Rimini gets to witness extraordinary scenes, as an elderly priest leads groups of prostitutes in the Lord's Prayer and readings from the Bible. On the night I accompanied him, three Nigerian women in high leather boots and skimpy Day-glo outfits burst into a spiritual about their love for Jesus. "In times of sorrow I will praise You for ever more," sang one in a robust, remarkably assured soul voice. Don Oreste could only say Amen to that.