Gozo land grab: Church took €200,000 ‘short-cut’ without verifying heirs’ claims

Archbishop refuses to answer questions over €200,000 deal to transfer control of 17th century foundation to private company’s lawyer

Archbishop Charles Scicluna
Archbishop Charles Scicluna

Land in Qala is being developed by a private company and the mega-developer Joseph Portelli, because the Maltese church failed to verify the claims by the Stagno Navarra family that they are rightful heirs to a 17th-century foundation created by a noblewoman.

The Stagno Navarra family, together with former magistrate Dennis Montebello and Gozitan lawyer Carmel Galea, paid €200,000 to the Maltese archdiocese to relinquish control of a foundation – the Abbazia di Sant Antonio delli Navarra, created in 1675 by Cosmana Cumbo Navarra – and replace the Abbazia’s rector, a priest, with a layman of their choice, the lawyer Patrick Valentino.

The Abbazia gathers within it a vast amount of land in Gozo that was for years controlled by a priest, appointed by the Archbishop as the foundation’s rector when the Navarra line ran out of first-born male descendants.

But Archbishop Charles Scicluna is refusing to answer questions from MaltaToday over his consent to appoint Patrick Valentino as the Abbazia’s rector, citing ongoing cases being sub judice.

In the meantime, Valentino is fronting legal cases against residents in Qala to register the lands under the ownership of Carravan – the company owned by the Stagno Navarras, Montebello and Galea.

On his part, Valentino is refusing to explain to MaltaToday how the heirs of the late Richard Stagno Navarra – whose pretensions as suitable descendants of Cosmana Navarra and for control of the Abbazia were first made in 1992 – are genealogically the rightful claimants to Cosmana Navarra’s foundation.

This fact alone was never verified by the archdiocese.

In his reply to MaltaToday, Valentino took umbrage at this newspaper’s probing questions and alleged the journalist was being paid to report the case.

Gozo court case: Carravan versus residents

In court, appearing in a case filed by Valentino for Carravan Ltd, against property owners who registered the title of their properties with the government, the Curia’s former property director Ray Bonnici admitted that the Maltese church “took a short-cut” with the €200,000 pay-off, so as not to be bogged down in a lengthy court case with Carravan.

Bonnici said no genealogical research or due diligence was carried out by the Curia when it ‘sold’ its control of the Abbazia. “The heirs of the late Richard Stagno Navarra had been in court with the Curia for some 20 years. In their agreement with the Curia, they gave a guarantee that they were the sole heirs and descendants of Cosmana Navarra, and that they would be held responsible should there be a challenge to the lineage,” Bonnici said.

Bonnici said the family tree presented by the Stagno Navarras in court back in 2013 had never been challenged in previous court cases.

For decades, these vast lands in Qala forming part of the Abbazia had been controlled by a cleric appointed by the Maltese church. The priest’s duty was to administer the lands until such time as a rightful heir regains control. As rector of the Abbazia, the priest was to use the rents paid for the pious obligations for the repose of the soul of Cosmana Navarra.

Yet Cosmana Navarra’s deed has clear guidelines on who the rector of the Abbazia must be: after her death, it had to be her nephew Federico Falson’s first-born son – the rule of primogeniture. In the absence of this, it had to be the first-born son of Navarra’s daughter. If not, then the first-born son of Cosmana Navarra’s sister Faustina, or the sons of Faustina’s daughter. Only after these measures were exhausted would the Abbazia then pass on to a priest, temporarily, until such time another rightful heir is made available. Cosmana Navarra was so specific that she said even children could be appointed to the role – as long as they were direct heir of primogeniture lineage.

All this came to a head in 1992, when Richard Stagno Navarra mounted a challenge to the Church’s control of the undeveloped lands. The case was decided in 2013, when the courts finally decided the Maltese archbishop had the sole power to appoint the suitable candidate as rector of the Abbazia.

Is foundation ‘ecclesiastical’?

But there remains confusion as to whether the Abbazia is an “ecclesiastical foundation”.

The Gozo residents who are fighting off Carravan’s pretensions to take over the land on which their houses were built, are insisting Archbishop Charles Scicluna needed the consent of the Vatican to hand over the control of this foundation to a layman.

In previous court cases defended by the Curia against Stagno Navarra’s claims, the archdiocese’s lawyers had successfully shown that the Holy See’s permission was required on on any ecclesiastical foundation such as the Navarra foundation.

But Bonnici told the Court that the Curia’s new stance in its deal with Carravan was that it no longer recognised the Navarra foundation as an ecclesiastical foundation.

“No transfer of property took place… that €200,000 was not a ‘price’ for the land, but for the pious obligations due to administer the foundation.”

Archbishop Charles Scicluna has now been called to testify in a court case in Gozo. His request to testify by video-conference was refused by the court.

Scicluna has also refused to answer questions from MaltaToday as to why he consented that Carravan’s lawyer Patrick Valentino be appointed rector of the Abbazia, when the late Archbishop Giuseppe Mercieca, his predecessor, had refused to appoint layman Richard Stagno Navarra as rector of the Abbazia.

The defendants fighting Carravan’s claims insist that, in the Church’s long drawn-out case against Richard Stagno Navarra, the Abbazia was considered an ecclesiastical foundation, where changes to the way it is administered also require the consent of the Holy See.

In court, Ray Bonnici suggested that the Church had decided it would no longer consider the foundation to be ecclesiastical, and that the 2013 court ruling had considered the Abbazia to be a lay foundation even though it gave the power to the Archbishop to nominate the rector of his choice.

Bonnici could not explain why the Curia had elected itself the power to no longer consider the Abbazia an “ecclesiastical” entity.

“We considered the new circumstances, we saw the court sentence, we examined once again the foundation deed, which contains certain doubts, and saw that the only interest the Church could have on property that does not belong to it, is the execution of the pious obligations, so we came to this deal for €200,000.”