The escape of two high-profile criminals - including a Mafia boss in a wheelchair - and a daring art theft have fueled criticism sweeping through Italy's beleaguered justice system.

The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano on Saturday called the recent incidents "scandalous" and added its voice to those raging against police and courts.The latest blow was the escape of Pasquale Cuntrera just days before an appeals court upheld his conviction and 21-year sentence for running an international drug ring.

Cuntrera, 63, who uses a wheelchair, was released from jail two weeks ago to await the verdict of a final appeal on his conviction of running an international drug ring. The ruling came Friday, but by then he was long gone.

It couldn't have happened at a worse time. Italy is still suffering from the vanishing act pulled off by Licio Gelli, the 79-year-old financier who once headed the shadowy, now-banned Masonic Lodge P2.

The high court in April upheld Gelli's fraud conviction in the 1982 collapse of Banco Ambrosiano, once Italy's largest private bank - but Gelli disappeared from his villa in Tuscany before the verdict. He had been free pending appeal.

The Gelli and Cuntrera cases highlight the slowness and complexity of the Italian justice system, as well as problems in law enforcement. A trial in Italy can last years.

Adding to the furor of the escapes was the theft of two paintings, one by Vincent van Gogh and one by Paul Cezanne, from Rome's National Gallery of Modern Art last week. Some have begun to wonder if there was anything the government could hang on to.