Pope Francis had harsh words for the Italian Mafia on Saturday, describing one crime syndicate as “the adoration of evil” and saying all mafiosi “are excommunicated” from the church.

Francis’ condemnation was the strongest attack on the mob since Pope John Paul criticized the Sicilian Mafia in 1993.

Francis made the remarks after visiting a stronghold of the ‘Ndrangheta, one of Italy’s most dangerous crime groups. There, he comforted the jailed father of a 3-year-old boy killed in a mob ambush and condemned mob violence against children.

Francis flew by helicopter to the town of Cassano All’ Jonio in the southern Calabria region, home base of the ‘Ndrangheta, which investigators say has spread around the world.

The pope made the trip in part to pay tribute to Nicola “Coco” Campolongo, who was killed in the town along with his grandfather in an organized crime attack last January.

The charred body of the boy, who had been entrusted to his grandfather Giuseppe Iannicelli after his parents were jailed on drugs charges, was found along with those of Iannicelli and a Moroccan woman in a burnt-out car in the town.

Francis, who last January strongly denounced the murder and asked the killers to repent, comforted the boy’s father and other relatives during a meeting a Vatican spokesman described as highly emotional.

“Never again violence against children. May a child never again have to suffer like this. I pray for him continuously. Do not despair,” the spokesman quoted the pope as saying.

The boy’s parents and grandfather were part of a drug-trafficking clan of the ‘Ndrangheta. Social workers have been criticized for entrusting the boy to his maternal grandfather, a convicted drug-runner who was out on bail.

The crime group has been much harder for investigators to combat than the Sicilian Mafia because its structure is more lateral than hierarchical and its tightly-knit crime families are less flashy than the Sicilian mob.

A 2013 study by Demoskopia, an economic and social research institute, estimated the ‘Ndrangheta’s annual turnover at around $72 billion in 30 countries, equivalent to about 3.5 percent of Italy’s total official economic output.

Around half of its revenues came through drug trafficking, the study found.

In the prison, which holds a number of ‘Ndrangheta criminals, the pope told the inmates they should not waste their time behind bars but seek forgiveness from God for their crimes and emerge rehabilitated.

Francis, who has condemned organized crime several times since his election in March 2013, later addressed priests in the cathedral of Cassano all’ Jonio, a run-down town of mostly drab concrete houses in the mountains near the Adriatic.

The bishop of Cassano, Nunzio Galantino, is seen as one of the most progressive in Italy’s poorer, underdeveloped south and has taken strong stands against organized crime.

But there have been instances of collusion by some priests in other areas of Calabria where the ‘Ndrangheta is strongest.

Al Jazeera and wire services