September 28, 2020

Two Arrested for Robbery and Vandalism at Church of Sant’Agata al Collegio in Sicily


Image Credit: Associazione Gesù Nazareno - Caltanissetta

Article By: Lynette Turnblom

For the second time in under two months the Chiesa di Sant’Agata al Collegio in Caltanissetta, Sicily has been damaged by acts of vandalism and the theft of sacred objects.  On 22 September 2020, two suspicious suspects were seen walking at a fast pace away from the zone surrounding the church carrying an unusually shaped wrapped object.  Upon noting patrolling officers nearby, the pair picked up their pace, leading the city police to call for backup in order to stop them for questioning. 

Image Credit Radio CL1

The young men, later identified as Alessio Pio Raul and Giannone Salvatore, were located and stopped by the police ten minutes south of the seventeenth-century Jesuit church.  In their possession, law enforcement officers found a golden brooch, a church reliquary, a container for holy oil, and 161 euros in coins.  

Image Credit: Associazione Gesù Nazareno - Caltanissetta

Reviewing video surveillance cameras installed in the area, police were able to reconstruct the events related to the church burglary, which showed two suspects breaking in through the door of the church library, where the pair went on to ransacked an office and vending machines where they likely removed the large sum of coins they were carrying when stopped by police,  The duo then moved on to the church itself.

In addition to theft and vandalism of the music school and library, once inside the Baroque church the two thieves attacked various altar spaces, removing a chrismarium, (a ceremonial container for holy oil) and a church ciborium used to hold hosts for, and after, the Eucharist.  



Rushing to steal what they could carry, the thieves left communion host wafers scattered in their wake and heavily disrupted the church's sleeping Madonna, a memorial representation of Mary's uncorrupted body and soul representing the moment of transit from earthly life to the Assumption. 

It is from this peaceful representation of the mother of the church that the thieves filched the gold brooch, later recovered when the pair were stopped by police.  And as if that wasn't enough, the marauders had also gathered up all of the church's candlesticks, piling them in a corner, probably in order to return for them at some later time.  Thankfully, at least in this instance, following the suspects' apprehension, all of the stolen items have now been returned to the parish priest. 

Yet, as mentioned earlier, this act of theft and vandalism came less than a month after an earlier attack on the church.  The first occasion was reported on the 23rd of August.  Similar to the second theft, thieves again had entered the vulnerable church through its library vandalizing the parish and taking offering coins.  At the time of this first theft, Father Gaetano Caneletta said, “it is an offense to our faith and a serious wound to our artistic heritage.”

As shown by these two back-to-back attacks on Chiesa di Sant’Agata al Collegio in such a short time frame, churches are can be viewed as easy targets for thieves.  As Domenica Giani, the head of Vatican police has said, “Humanity’s spiritual thirst and desire to praise God have given life to works of inestimable value and to a religious patrimony that gives rise to greed and the interest of art traffickers.”

While the sacrality of churches may prevent some thieves from targeting them, the abundance of invaluable art housed within them may be too tempting a target for others.  The FBI and the Carabinieri TPC have each outlined several ways that churches can help to protect their artworks and sacred objects: 

  1. Develop an inventory This proves crucial in identifying and locating and recovering items of historic, cultural, or artistic value. The house-of-worship staff should retain a comprehensive list of all valuable church property. Detailed written records of objects should include the medium, dimensions, material, proof or artist marks, and any other similar details and should be reviewed periodically to ensure all objects are present and accounted for as not all thefts are not discovered immediately. 
  2. Establish and maintain a current and up to date photographic record: While maintaining written files of artifacts is essential, digital photography makes it easy for staff may store and, if necessary, print high-quality color photos of each item. These pictures can be extremely useful when reporting a loss to the police or notifying registries of objects stolen during a theft or burglary. Photographic records should include all sides of the object.  
  3. Marking items: Initially, it may appear impossible to mark all church related items because of composition or intrinsic value; however, contemporary options to consider for high-value objects could be the use of a forensic asset marking agent, or radio-frequency identification (RFID) which uses electromagnetic fields to automatically identify and track tags attached to objects sounding an alarm when objects are moved. 
  4. Insure property: Where financially feasible, office staff and clergy should review the church's casualty insurance coverage to ascertain that the property protection program includes a clause for all historic artifacts and lists particularly high-value items separately.

Maintaining a relationship with local law enforcement is also integral for church officials and can result in more rapid response time and a smoother investigation in cases of theft.  In the case of the attempted theft at Santa Maria Maddalena in Liguria in 2019 the police and the church were able to work together to replace a targeted painting by the 17th-century Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel the Younger with a copy when they received advanced intelligence of a potential theft.  Through their collaboration, the church was able to continue operating as normal without the risk of losing their €3.4 million masterpiece.  

In this recent case at Sant’Agata al Collegio, the alert police officers in Caltanissetta were able to respond quickly to the robbery and to retrieve the church's stolen objects.  Police are still investigating the involvement of possible co-conspirators including two other suspected accomplices, one male and one female, both also in their twenties. 

---------------

Bibliography:

Arma dei Carabinieri. ‘Linee guida per la tutela dei beni culturali ecclesiastici’. Ufficio Nazionale per i beni culturali ecclesiastici:, November 2014. https://www.beniculturali.it/mibac/multimedia/MiBAC/documents/feed/pdf/Linee%20Guida%20Tutela%20Beni%20Culturali%20Ecclesiastici-imported-48392.pdf.
Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio. ‘Caltanissetta, vandalizzata la chiesa di Sant’Agata al Collegio. Malviventi rubano anche le offerte’. Seguo News, 23 August 2020, sec. Seguo News - Notizie Caltanissetta. http://www.seguonews.it/caltanissetta-vandalizzata-la-chiesa-di-santagata-al-collegio-malviventi-rubano-anche-le-offerte.
Federal Bureau of Investigation. ‘Theft: A Real Threat to Religious Heritage’. Government. Federal Bureau of Investigation, 7 December 2016. https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/featured-articles/theft-a-real-threat-to-religious-heritage.
Giuffrida, Angela. ‘Italian Police Reveal “€3m Painting” Stolen from Church Was a Copy’. The Guardian, 13 March 2019, sec. Art and design. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/mar/13/thieves-steal-3m-painting-by-brueghel-the-younger.
Polizia di Stato. ‘Caltanissetta, Arrestati Dalla Polizia Di Stato Due Ventenni Responsabili Del Raid Notturno Alla Chiesta Di Sant’Agata al Collegio.’ Government. Polizia di Stato, 23 September 2020. https://questure.poliziadistato.it/Caltanissetta/articolo/7945f6aec1680d6c151646476.
Povoledo, Elisabetta. ‘Thieves Trying to Steal Precious Painting Get Worthless Copy’. The New York Times, 14 March 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/14/arts/design/brueghel-crucifixion-painting-stolen.html.
Radio CL1. ‘Arrestati Dalla Squadra Mobile Gli Autori Del Raid Nella Chiesa Di Sant’Agata’. Radio CL1, 22 September 2020. https://share.xdevel.com/.
Stewart, Nan. ‘Thieves Stole a $3.4 Million Bruegel From a Rural Italian Church—or So They Thought. Here’s How the Village Tricked Them’. Artnet News, 13 March 2019, sec. Art and Law. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/pieter-brueghel-theft-1487668.

0 comments: