September 17, 2015; Al Jazeera

In the U.S., law enforcement authorities are permitted to “take the profit out of crime” by seizing the assets of associated with criminal activity. In some cases, a portion of these assets is distributed to selected nonprofits. Presumably, a nonprofit that receives assets seized in a criminal action here doesn’t have to worry much or at all about the criminals returning to take back their property.

That may not be the case in Italy, where a nonprofit called Libera uses property once belonging to the Sicilian and Calabrian Mafias. Founded by a priest, Rev. Luigi Ciotti, in 1995, Libera has become a prominent anti-Mafia organization since it got the Italian parliament to enact a law authorizing nonprofits to use property seized from the Mafia at no cost.

That made Libera unpopular with the Mafia, to put it mildly. Al Jazeera’s Alberto Mucci calls Ciotti “one of the Mafia’s most-wanted targets.” Mucci cites a wiretapped conversation between “Mafia bosses” in which one suggested, “We could just kill that son of a bitch.”

It might be more than just Libera’s use of Mafia properties that makes it unpopular with the nation’s criminal gangs. In a villa that once belonged to the mobster Salvatore Di Marco, Libera trains high school students to learn about the operations of criminal organizations and what they can do to combat the Mafia. While they attend classes, the teens also rehabilitate the villa for its eventual return to the community. For example, before his arrest, Di Marco had had a layer of cement poured on the floor of the villa, because of the Mafiosi believe, according to Libera’s Lucilla Andreucci, “their way of thinking is, ‘if I can’t use it, then nobody can.’ They try to destroy as much of the villa as they can before losing it.”

Mucci notes that “seized Mafia properties often operate as cooperatives…farms…vineyards, restaurants, or social centers helping immigrants or disabled people.” One distinctive example is the organic foods cooperative, Cooperativa Placido Rizzotto, on 155,000 hectares of land once owned by two leaders of the Sicilian Mafia, “Toto” Riina and Giovanni Brusca.

Despite all the productive uses Libera finds for former Mafia property, Libera is also dedicated to what Mucci describes as “collective memory: keeping the brutal reality of the Mafia alive in the country’s consciousness.” Every March 21st, Ciotti organizes an annual gathering for reading the names of 900 Mafia victims. Ciotti would like to see March 21st made an official date of remembrance.

Notwithstanding Ciotti’s activities, the Catholic Church has had a long and embarrassing relationship with the Mafia. A recent spate of criticism has been lodged against church authorities, who have turned a blind eye to priests conducting funerals, sometimes lavish spectacles, for Mafia mobsters. After a recent funeral for a Mafia leader in Rome at the church of Don Bosco, a Catholic priest, Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, a specialist in moral theology, wrote a devastating critique of the Don Bosco funeral, as “most Italians believe [that the church] is sincerely opposed to Mafia power.” He added that several priests have been Mafia murder victims.

Ciotti has a recent ally in the Vatican, however. In 2014, Pope Francis excommunicated all Mafia because they embody the “adoration of evil and contempt of the common good.” In light of the excommunication announcement, the funeral at Don Bosco’s in which the walls of the church contained posters lauding the dead Mafia mobster as “King of Rome” and “You conquered Rome, now you will conquer heaven” reveals that the Pope’s far-flung Catholic Church bureaucracy doesn’t always follow the lead of its supreme leader. The Pope may be facing opposition and pushback in some corners of his realm, including in the U.S., but Ciotti’s nonprofit has to benefit from the support of the pontiff in Libera’s ongoing effort to weaken Italy’s powerful and violent criminal families.—Rick Cohen