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Born in Salgareda, Veneto, Poletto was ordained a priest in 1957. He holds a licentiate in moral theology from the Alphonsian Academy in Rome, and worked as a curate in Montemagno. In 1965 he was named parish priest in Oltreponte; at the same time he worked part-time in a local factory.
In 1973, Poletto founded the Diocesan Centre for Family Ministry. In 1980, he rose to become Bishop of Fossano; he also served for 10 years as secretary of the Piedmontese Episcopal Conference. In 1989 he was named Bishop of Asti and in 1999, Archbishop of Turin.
After finishing his studies Proclaimed Cardinal by Pope John Paul II on 21 February 2001, Poletto was one of the cardinal electors who participated in the 2005 papal conclave that selected Pope Benedict XVI, although Poletto was considered papabile himself.