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Scandal Knocks Cardinal Off Bully Pulpit

World Perspective | EUROPE

Italian prosecutors target crusading archbishop of Naples as possible accomplice in loan sharking ring.

September 04, 1998|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROME — They stood against the same evil. "Lone Wolf" denounced the loan sharks from the microphone of his tiny radio station in southern Italy. The cardinal condemned them from his pulpit.

Then, to the dismay of everyone who followed their crusade against the crooks known in Italy as "stranglers," their alliance ended.

By helping two fleeced businessmen take their case to the police, "Lone Wolf" triggered an inquiry that snared the cardinal's brother last month as a prime suspect in a usury and extortion racket--and pointed to the cardinal as a possible accomplice.

Prosecutors pursuing the ring in Basilicata, an impoverished region about 125 miles southeast of the Tyrrhenian port city of Naples, listed Cardinal Michele Giordano as a suspect after tapping his telephone. Police went to his office with a search warrant and took computer disks and bank records. He has not been charged.

Italians are accustomed to seeing political and business leaders go to trial on corruption charges. But Giordano, the 67-year-old archbishop of Naples, is the first Roman Catholic cardinal targeted by the aggressive prosecutors of the 1990s.

The suggestion of his involvement, which the cardinal denies, is all the more surprising because of his tough talk. Since a spate of suicides by hounded debtors in 1994, he has repeatedly declared that loan sharks should be excommunicated.

"We feel lost," said Father Francesco Minervino, a Naples priest. "However this investigation ends, it's another cross our region must bear."

Despite a law that no one may lend money at more than 1 1/2 times the national bank average, usury reaches what one senator calls "extraordinary proportions" in Italy. Tax police estimate that 4 million of Italy's 57 million people are in debt to "stranglers," to the tune of nearly $7 billion.

Bankers and "stranglers" are often the same people. Investigators alleged that the usury ring based in Sant'Arcangelo, the cardinal's hometown, was run by the director of the local Bank of Naples branch, Filippo Lemma, and construction boss Mario Lucio Giordano, the cardinal's younger brother. Both are under arrest.

Lemma is accused of granting bank customers credit beyond their means; when they failed to repay, investigators say, he sent them to the younger Giordano to borrow from a "credit cooperative" at rates of 300% to 400% a year.

Suspicion fell on the cardinal, investigators say, when bank records showed that $453,000 had flowed from his account to his brother and $235,000 had flowed back. Prosecutors want to know whether the cardinal was financing--and profiting from--the racket and whether church money was involved.

The cardinal said he lent his brother money from his personal savings to cover a construction business debt. "If I knew that my help . . . was being used for illegal purposes, I wouldn't have given it to him," he said. "I would have hit him on the head."

Alarmed by the power of the prosecutors, foes of Italy's center-left government rushed to the cardinal's defense. The Vatican reacted cautiously, objecting mainly to the fact that it learned about the probe in the Italian media.

According to leaks from the investigation, the cardinal railed on his tapped telephone against "Lone Wolf," who had blown the whistle on the racket. "To hell with that cretin!" the cardinal was quoted as saying.

"Lone Wolf," whose name is Filippo D'Agostino, has used his Radio Basilicata Due since 1996 to publicize the plight of usury victims in Sant'Arcangelo, a town of 7,000 people.

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