A priest in Florence is being investigated for fraud after allegedly earning millions by performing fake exorcisms, the Telegraph reports.
Prosecutors alleged that Father Francesco Saverio Bazzoffi would “stage shows” before crowds of more than 400 people at the House of the Sainted Archangels, an organization he founded.
According to prosecutors, the priest’s associates would “pretend to be possessed by demons” and Father Bazzoffi would allegedly exorcise them using obscure rites.
The priest would then offer to heal members of the audience who were sick and solicit donations to his organization.
“During Mass, the priest spoke in Aramaic, and strange things happened. I do not know if it was group hysteria or our suggestibility, but I remember one old woman screaming in a man's voice while five big guys held her down,” one witness told police, according to the Telegraph.
Thirteen of the priest’s associates are also under investigation. Prosecutors began monitoring Father Bazzoffi in 2005, and his house was raided last month. Seized documents showed the priest had nearly $6 million in his bank account.
Father Bazzoffi heads the matrimony office of the diocese of Florence. Last October the Archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Ennio Antonelli, publicly cautioned the priest against performing exorcisms.
“I would like to make clear the following: any sort of special rite of benediction, such as the laying on of hands, is forbidden. Exorcisms are also prohibited,” the cardinal wrote in his letter. A priest must be authorized by the diocese to carry out an exorcism.
Father Bazzoffi denied the accusations, though he admitted he did not have permission to perform exorcisms. “I have always only carried out blessings,” he said, according to the Telegraph. He said he “welcomed” the cardinal’s warning, since “it showed that work like mine can trigger suspicion.”
The priest also denied he had ever encouraged sick people to believe he could heal them. “These accusations would make me laugh, if it was not such a serious thing,” he said.
He said his organization, being an unregistered business, did not have a bank account, so he opened an account in his own name. He claimed the money is made up of “lots of small donations,” saying 30,000 people visit every year.
“The police should be able to see that the money always goes out to our projects in India and the Philippines,” Father Bazzoffi said.