This is not a bad Catholic joke …

It’s one of those stories you can’t make up. Phil Stewart in our Rome bureau reports that one of Italy’s most infamous mobsters has become a father this week without ever consummating his marriage to his daughter’s mother. What’s more, his wife’s name is Immacolata (Immaculate)… But this is not some kind of bad Catholic joke.

A view of Naples, with Mount Vesuvius in the backgroundRaffaele Cutolo, a former boss of the Naples-based Camorra crime network, got multiple life sentences on “hard time” — without conjugal visiting rights — on murder charges over two decades ago. He married Immacolata in prison in 1983 but was never allowed to be alone with her. In fact Cutolo, now 65, told the Rome daily La Repubblica last year that he had only kissed his wife once in 23 years. But he said: “I want so much to give her a child.”

According to Il Messaggero newspaper, the couple immediately asked for permission to try artificial insemination, but it wasn’t until 2001 that this was granted. They apparently needed several tries before their daughter was conceived.

Immacolata Cutolo said she wanted little Denise to grow up never hearing the word Camorra. “It is synonymous with pain for everybody,” she said.

Does Italy have its own “Terry Schiavo case”?

File photo of patient Terry Schiavo in a Florida hospital, 2001Does Italy have its own “Terry Schiavo case“? Eluana Englaro has been in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) for the past 15 years and her father is trying to get legal permission to remove her feeding tube. Italy’s highest appeals court recently sent the case back to a lower court in Milan that had refused to let him do so. The local media have already dubbed Eluana “Italy’s Terry Schiavo” and the retrial (when it happens) looks set to spark off another major bioethics debate there.

Beppino Englaro has been caring for his daughter at home and says it’s time to free her from “the inhumane and degrading condition in which she is forced to exist”. The appeals court (Court of Cassation) said the lower court must determine whether her PVS is irreversible and whether she expressed the wish not to be kept alive if in a PVS. Her father said she had expressed that wish, but apparently has no living will or other tangible evidence to back that up.

Eluana’s case lacks the husband-vs-parents element that propelled the Schiavo case into the U.S. national headlines in 2005. But thorny cases of bioethics get into the national spotlight in Italy. A Roman judge is still investigating a doctor who last year removed the respirator of paralysed muscular dystrophy patient Piergiorgio Welby, 60, who had described his life as “torture” and asked for the right to die. Only Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and the U.S. state of Oregon permit assisted suicide for the terminally ill.