ROME (Reuters) - The former head of the world famous Roman Catholic Benedictine abbey of Montecassino, which was destroyed in World War Two and rebuilt, is under investigation on suspicion of embezzlement, police said on Wednesday.
Police said Father Pietro Vittorelli, who until two years ago was abbot of the monastery founded by St. Benedict nearly 1,500 years ago, and his brother were suspected of siphoning off some 500,000 euros ($536,300.00) from abbey funds.
They said Vittorelli was suspected of taking the money from funds raised for charity at the hilltop abbey, located halfway between Rome and Naples and one of the most visited religious sites in Italy.
Police said that as part of the investigation, they had sequestered more than 500,000 euros worth of assets belonging to the brothers. Neither Rev. Vittorelli nor his brother could be reached for comment.
The suspected fraud at Montecassino comes at an uncomfortable moment for the Catholic Church after two new books by Italian journalists, partly drawing on leaked documents, depicted a Vatican plagued by mismanagement, greed and corruption.
The Montecassino abbey, first founded in 529, is the most famous of the monasteries started by the mediaeval abbot, who is one of the Church's patron saints of Europe. The present-day monastery is the fourth to stand on the site.
Much of the previous monastery was destroyed by American bombs in 1944 because the Allies believed the Germans were using the hill as a vantage point to block the allied march towards Rome from the beachheads at Anzio and Nettuno.
Historians generally concur that the bombing was a tactical mistake.
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(Reporting by Isla Binnie; Editing by Philip Pullella and Catherine Evans)