CASSANO ALL'JONIO, Italy (AP) — Pope Francis comforted the imprisoned father of a slain toddler during a visit Saturday to a southern Italian region infested by one of the world's most powerful crime syndicates.
During his one-day pilgrimage to Calabria, Francis met separately with the father and two grandmothers of Coco' Campolongo in the courtyard of a prison in the town of Castrovillari.
The 3-year-old boy was shot, along with one of his grandfathers and the grandfather's companion, in January in an attack blamed on drug turf wars in the nearby town of Cassano all'Jonio. The father was in prison at the time.
The attackers also torched the car with the three victims inside. The pope publicly expressed his horror shortly after the attack and promised to visit the town.
Francis embraced the father, who asked him to pray for the boy's mother. Local organizers said she is under house arrest.
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, said Francis told the father: "May children never again have to suffer in this way."
"The two grandmothers were weeping like fountains," Benedettini added.
Calabria is the power base of the 'ndrangheta, a global drug trafficking syndicate that also enriches itself through systemic extortion of local businesses and infiltration of public works contracts in underdeveloped Calabria.
During his trip, Francis also greeted 200 women and men held at the prison, then comforted residents in a hospice. One of the doctors, at the pope's request, removed a bothersome wooden splinter from one his fingers, organizers said.
The 77-year-old pope appeared to be holding up well despite scorching sun during the hectic trip, which included an outdoor Mass in late afternoon.
The Vatican said Francis, who has put those on the edges of society at the heart of his papacy, lunched with poor people and drug addicts in a rehabilitation facility.