ROME — You are forgiven if the spooky details of the mysterious death of a priest in a monastery in northern Italy call to mind Umberto Eco’s famous thriller The Name of the Rose. But this story is not a fictional tale of historical intrigue; it is an all-too-true story about larceny and murder.
On April 25, 2014, Monsignor Giuseppe Rocco, 92 years old, was found dead on the floor of his cell-like room in Cleric’s House in Trieste, where he was still active in ministry in the local diocese. Two years later, the priest who gave him his last rites is being charged with his murder.
On the morning Rocco died, his housekeeper, Eleanora Dibitonto, whose job it was to wake the aging prelate every morning around 7:30 for mass, screamed when she saw his body prostrate on the floor beside his bed. She called an ambulance and the resident priest, Father Paolo Piccoli, to give the dead man his last rites.
When the paramedics arrived, they immediately called the police. Despite Father Rocco’s advanced age, it was clear that the old man did not die of natural causes, according to court documents reported in the Italian media. The autopsy would later prove the cause of death to be suffocation by strangulation. The paramedics noticed some pretty obvious signs of foul play, including a broken bone protruding from the dead priest’s neck.
Ms. Dibitonto also noticed two spots of blood under the corpse of Monsignor Rocco and pointed them out to police. She was concerned that he may have some underlying condition that made him bleed. Instead, those drops of blood would later be tied directly to Father Piccoli.
For the last two years, Rocco’s death has been the stuff of conspiracy theories in Trieste.
It seems that the week before Rocco was murdered, he reported that a holy statuette of great religious value had disappeared from his room. The statue was returned a few days later, but not before Rocco alerted his superiors that he suspected Piccoli was up to his old habit of stealing relics.
Father Piccoli had been accused of stealing sacred relics when he worked at a parish in L’Aquila, where he ministered until a deadly earthquake in 2009 destroyed much of the town and surrounding area. He had never been convicted of any thefts, but, then again, the Catholic Church rarely sends its sinners to a secular court for judgment. Instead, he was apparently made to return a stash of stolen treasures and repent for his sins.
According to investigative documents, Piccoli spent much of his youth dressing as a priest long before he joined the priesthood, charging expensive vestments he procured from expensive shops in Rome to his father. While in L’Aquila, parishioners reportedly told police, he also suffered from paranoia and often led demonstrations against the communists who he said wanted to “kick him out of town.”
Other people who knew him said he often argued publicly with his altar boys, embarrassing and intimidating them, which led to a number of complaints against him.
Piccoli’s allegedly troubled history makes the accusations of theft that Rocco leveled against him all the more important, putting the younger cleric at risk for disciplinary action by the church, according to the court dossier of the investigation into Rocco’s murder.
That was motive enough to kill the old priest, according to the charges against him for Rocco’s murder, and the drops of blood were damning.
Father Piccoli maintains his innocence.
Days after the murder, and before he moved on from Trieste to be near his ailing parents in Verona, he told reporters that there were many other people in the Trieste House of the Clerics the night Rocco was killed. “I wasn’t the only one there,” he said, despite the fact that Rocco’s housekeeper said it was just the three of them in the house that night.
“People were coming and going all the time in that house,” said Piccoli. “We were never alone. There was a center for volunteers, a journalist, and a professor who often stayed at the house.”
When Piccoli was interrogated about Rocco’s murder, he told Nicola Tripani, the prosecutor in charge of the murder inquiry, that his blood may have ended up on the dead priest’s body because of a skin condition he had that caused bleeding open sores. He said he might have left the blood during the administration of last rites, though the court documents contradict that theory since the body of the priest was not lifted during the last rite ceremony and the blood was found under the dead man’s corpse.
The prosecutor says that he has a copy of a letter from the diocese warning Piccoli about the theft of Rocco’s religious statuette and further disciplinary action. He believes the younger priest woke early on the morning of April 25 and went to Rocco’s room to confront him about the accusation. He says the two then argued and Piccoli strangled Monsignor Rocco and left him on the floor. He now faces aggravated murder charges because his victim was elderly and weak.
In December, a secular court will determine whether to put the prelate on trial.