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Priest 'kidnapped prostitutes'

Wednesday, March 16, 2005 Posted: 8:06 AM EST (1306 GMT)

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ROME, Italy (Reuters) -- His defenders in the Catholic Church call it tough love. His critics call it kidnapping.

Priest Cesare Lodeserto, the former head of an Italian foundation that looks after illegal immigrants, has been making front-page news in Italy since he was arrested last weekend over accusations he had mistreated Romanian prostitutes.

The women allege that the well-known crusader against sex slavery kidnapped them by taking away their identity papers and refusing to let them leave the immigration center in southern Lecce province.

Lodeserto's lawyer told Reuters that the priest sheltered them for their own good after they were found drunk in town.

"A few times I behaved like a strict father, but what could I do? These are young girls, easy prey for men looking to fool them," Lodeserto told the magistrate following his case, according to Il Messagero newspaper on Wednesday.

The scandal has hit a raw nerve in Roman Catholic Italy, where community leaders have in the past been denounced for using tough tactics while helping the less fortunate. That includes Vincenzo Muccioli, who put drug addicts in chains and condoned beatings to help them kick the habit.

The accusations against Lodeserto are less severe.

"(Lodeserto) never refrained from using offensive phrases and expressions," one of his accusers said, according to transcripts leaked to the newspaper Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno.

"In some cases, he even slapped them, ripping up their state permits and threatening to send them back to their countries."
Sex slaves

Lodeserto's Foundation on the Adriatic coast was created in 1997 after a wave of Albanian immigrants poured into eastern Italy, and it has a satellite operation in Moldova. It has a special focus on helping victims of the sex trade.

Thousands of women are forced to work as prostitutes in Italy, but victims of sexual slavery can obtain temporary papers under legislation that aims to help them start a new life.

Lodeserto has in the past faced death threats from angry pimps, and an unidentified immigrant suggested in an article published this week that the scandal was a setup, saying she had been offered cash to file a complaint against the priest.

"Lodeserto stopped them from leaving at times when it was inopportune for them to leave. This sparked the talk about kidnapping," Lodeserto's lawyer Pasquale Corleto told Reuters.

Church officials have also been at pains to defend him, and Italy's Episcopal Conference has expressed its "solidarity and faith" in Lodeserto.

The Archbishop of Lecce, Cosmo Francesco Ruppi, also backed the priest. "The arrest of Cesare Lodeserto appears, to say the least, groundless and incomprehensible, if not absurd," he said.

European Affairs Minister Rocco Buttiglione, a friend of Pope John Paul, said Lodeserto "has given his life to help the poor, the immigrants and the prostitutes."

"Now he's being hit by defamatory accusations," he said.