Sicily's '12 apostles' religious sect abused girls to 'make them feel closer to God'

Four people arrested in Sicily on suspicion of committing violence against children over a 25-year period have justified their actions by saying they were "spiritual acts".

The suspects, arrested in the town of Catania, belong to a religious congregation counting around 5,000 members. The organisation, Associazione Cattolica Cultura ed Ambiente, (Catholic association for culture and environment), was founded by a now deceased priest, Padre Cavalli.

The four members – the organisation's spiritual father, Pietro Capuana, and three "priestesses" – were arrested as part of an ongoing police investigation dubbed as "12 apostles", news agency Ansa reported.

Authorities started investigating members of the organisation after they were tipped off by the mother of a 15-year-old girl, who discovered an online conversation in which her daughter detailed the alleged abuses she had been subjected to.

The alleged abuses were carried out by a "highly hierarchical" group within the organisation, headed by 12 people, know as the "12 apostles".

It has been alleged that Capuana – who declared himself the reincarnation of an archangel – abused the victims, almost all of whom were emotionally fragile girls, and told them he would make them "feel closer to God", local news site Live Sicilia reported.

The "priestesses" were in charge of "recruiting minors who were going to be subjected to sexual abuses," investigators explained. They added that the women convinced the girls that sexual acts with Capuana "were not sexual acts, but acts of 'clean love' and 'love from above' instead."

Victims were forced to sign letters in which they declared their love for Capuana, affirming they were "consensual."

Investigators found that Capuana allegedly brainwashed some mothers, who then let him "look after" their daughters.

The priestesses were also in charge of organising "shifts" for girls at Capuana's house. Among other duties, girls were in charge of washing him, dressing him, cleaning his house as well as engaging in sexual acts with him, which sometimes involved more than one girl at the time.

When girls refused to engage in sexual acts, they were accused of being without faith and were obliged to pay fines, investigators explained.

Investigators found €60,000 (£53,646 ; $70,984) in cash when they arrested the suspects.

It is believed the alleged abuses occurred in other locations as well. Members of the sect would gather for "spiritual retreats" in secret locations.

Live Sicilia contacted some members of the Christian organisation, who said they were shocked and unaware of the alleged abuses.