It was just another long summer evening for cousins Simone, 11, and Alessio, 12, as they sat on the sidewalk outside their home in the small town of Vittoria in southern Italy. But the narrow, peaceful street turned into a bloody spectacle last Thursday when a rogue Jeep Renegade mowed down the children at 100 mph before fleeing the scene.

Anywhere else, the incident would be a fluke, a sad case of wrong place, wrong time. Not in Vittoria, however, because the town is home to an intricate web of money and mafia, and the driver of the jeep, Rosario Greco, who was drunk and high on drugs, is also a thug of Cosa Nostra.

The “tragedy of Vittoria,” as the case was soon dubbed, has become an icon of the life-devastating effects of a town held hostage by the mafia.

“It’s the result of a festering during the years,” said the Sicilian journalist Paolo Borrometi, whose reporting on the mafia in Southern Italy left him seriously injured and under police escort, in a July 16 interview with local media.

Borrometi works for the Italian Catholic channel Tv2000, and he said the town of Vittoria has been overtaken not just by criminal organizations but also an attitude of turning a blind eye among citizens and even local clergy.

“The Church could and should exercise an educational and cultural role in this situation, but instead it has too often fallen short,” Borrometi said, adding that some priests “could have done more.”

The vicar in Vittoria, Father Mario Cascone, agreed, saying the Church “has much to improve and self-improve” concerning its commitment to bettering the formation of young people in a country that is still closely tied to its Catholic roots.

“It’s hard to push back on certain attitudes, certain habits,” the priest told local media. “It’s sad that such a massive tragedy had to be the moment to look reality in the face and call it by its name, but out of respect for the two boys and the pain of their families, we mustn’t hold back.”

Alessio, the 12-year-old victim, died immediately upon being struck. Simone, the 11-year-old, was treated at a local hospital after Greco’s Jeep severed both his legs, eventually succumbing to his injuries on the day of his cousin’s funeral.

Citing a fear of being lynched, Greco turned himself into the police. Now 37, he’s the son of a now-incarcerated “packaging king” in Vittoria, which houses one of the most important fruit and vegetable markets in the country. In the car with him on the evening of July 11 was the son of the leader of the Stidda, another Sicilian mafia.

According to local media, Vittoria is a town where asking for protection money is common practice, where there’s a dramatically disproportionate number of banks per citizen, where even police headquarters are owned by Cosa Nostra, and where the local government had to be dismantled in 2018 due to mafia infiltration at every level.

In that context, Borrometi says the Church hasn’t always been on the side of the angels.

“I’m not asking any priest to be a hero, but I can’t forget that when the Municipality of Vittoria was dismantled last year due to the mafia, some local priests criticized that decision,” he said.

Ironically, in recent decades it’s been foreign popes who come into such mafia strongholds and call them out, reminding so-called godfathers of their impending Judgment Day.

“Convert, one day God’s judgement will come!” famously said Polish Pope John Paul II in the Sicilian mafia capital of Palermo in 1993.

“The mafia is a path of death, incompatible with the Gospel,” reiterated German Pope Benedict XVI in the same city, while in Calabria, in the notoriously corrupt tip of Italy, Pope Francis declared in 2014, “Mafiosi are excommunicated.”

Borrometi said that despite the strong words used by the recent pontiffs, many criminals continue to go to Mass and declare themselves to be Catholics.

“The Mafiosi may be excommunicated, but this concept never made it to Vittoria,” he said.

Borrometi acknowledged it’s not just the Church that comes up short, saying a lack of resources and manpower also have hindered civil efforts to combat the Mafiosi, “who don’t fear the State and live with the arrogance of feeling that they own everything and are above the law.”

Friday marks the 27th anniversary of another tragedy, that of Via D’Amelio in Palermo, which claimed the life of the anti-mafia judge Paolo Borsellino and his escort. Documents recently released by the Italian judiciary show that even in that case, authorities were severely understaffed.

In 2017, Francis marked the anniversary by tweeting a call to “pray for all the victims of the mafia.” In light of such pleas, Borrometi asked what the Church is willing to do to make a difference.

“[Mafiosi] want us to be quiet, but this is the time to yell,” the journalist tweeted July 13. “We must do it for us, for our children, for the smaller ones like Alessio and Simone.”