Italian police have arrested an alleged paedophile priest amid media accusation he was protected by the local bishop. Detectives allege father Antonello Tropea, 44, used gay dating app Grindr to groom teenage boys who he then paid for clandestine encounters in the southern Calabria region.

Tropea was held on 18 December at the end of a lengthy investigation that was launched after he was surprised by police while in the company of a minor inside a car parked in a secluded area near the deprived port city of Gioia Tauro. The boy later told investigators the priest had paid him €20 (£15, $21) for an oral sex act, a fee they had agreed on WhatsApp after having first met on Grindr.

Tropea allegedly posed as a scientific researcher in his thirties named Nicola, an alias he apparently drew from the patron saint of his own parish, the San Nicola di Mira church in the rural town of Messignadi. A police search of the clergy house reportedly revealed a trove of evidence, including child porn images and message exchanges with other teenagers. Investigators are also said to have also found 16g of marijuana, sex toys and a penis enlargement tool.

In a warring twist, Tropea's boss, bishop of the Oppido-Palmi diocese Francesco Milito, had allegedly been aware of accusations against the priest for some time but did not take any action. According to court papers seen by local media confirming the arrest, two parishioners had warned the bishop of his subordinate's deviant tendencies as early as this summer.

But Milito dismissed the accusations as "nuns' chatter" in a phone conversation with Tropea that was taped by police, Il Fatto Quotidiano newspaper reported. Moreover, as the clergyman was placed under investigation, the bishop was alleged to have openly advised him "not to talk with Carabinieri police" on the issue.

Milito is not under investigation, while Tropea is facing a series of charges including soliciting a minor for sex and possession of paedo-pornographic material.