Pope Francis' campaign against corruption in the Catholic Church has made Italy's most dangerous mafia organization "nervous," which could make the prelate a target, a leading Italian prosecutor warned Thursday.
The pope's vow to clean up church finances and break unholy alliances between priests and local crime bosses threatens the money laundering and investment strategy of the 'Ndrangheta crime family that holds sway in the Calabria region, prosecutor Nicola Gratteri told the daily Il Fatto Quotidiano.
"I cannot say if the organization is in a position to do something like this, but they are dangerous and it is worth reflecting on,” Gratteri told the newspaper. "If the godfathers can find a way to stop him, they will seriously consider it."
Religion News Service, in a report from Rome, said the 'Ndrangheta mafia group is considered the most dangerous, the most unified and the most difficult for law enforcement to penetrate.
The warning by Gratteri, one of Italy's most active organized crime fighters and under protection himself against mob death threats, had little apparent influence on the pope, who has given Vatican security strategists fits with his habits of ditching his protective cordon and wading into crowds to commune with the faithful.
Francis showed up Thursday at Quirinale Palace in central Rome for a meeting with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano in his blue Ford Focus and only a handful of motorcycle escorts.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi downplayed the warning from Gratteri, saying, "It's not appropriate to feed alarmism." He described the pope and the Vatican staff as "very relaxed."
Since his election in March to succeed retired Pope Benedict XVI, Francis has lashed out against extravagant lifestyles of clergy and called for a "poor church" to minister to what in many parts of the world is an impoverished congregation. He has also vowed to clean up the Vatican Bank, which has long been suspected of laundering mafia money.
"Those who have up until now profited from the influence and wealth drawn from the church are getting very nervous,” Gratteri said in the interview [link in Italian]. “For many years, the mafia has laundered money and made investments with the complicity of the church. But now the pope is dismantling the poles of economic power in the Vatican, and that is dangerous."
Gratteri spoke with the newspaper, a relatively new publication with a reputation for anti-corruption crusading, about his newly published book, "Holy Water," about church-mob alliances in southern Calabria through which much of Europe's drug traffic flows.
The pope ratcheted up his crusade against corruption in a fiery sermon Monday, quoting the Gospel of St. Luke: "It would be better for [the corrupt man] if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea," Francis said, according to the Religious News Service report.
"The mafia that invests, that launders money, that therefore has the real power, is the mafia which has got rich for years from its connivance with the church," Gratteri said. "These are the people who are getting nervous."