Church justifies decision on Gozo land: heirs’ claims never challenged in court

Maltese Church is standing by its decision to award control of a 17th-century foundation to the lawyer of a private company, which is developing land in Qala, Gozo

The Maltese Church is standing by its decision to award control of a 17th-century foundation to the lawyer of a private company, which is developing land in Qala, Gozo.

In a statement to MataToday, the archdiocese said that the late Richard Stagno Navarra had presented evidence of his lineage to the Curia in 1991, and that his claim as an heir was “confirmed by the courts” in a lengthy case that started in 1992 and ended in 2013. “The heirs of the foundress further guaranteed their lineage with prejudice in their 2017 agreement with the Archdiocese.”

But Stagno Navarra’s claim to be a worthy heir to the Cosmana Navarra foundation has never been independently verified in court.

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

In 1992, the Maltese Church filed a legal action against Stagno Navarra after a court in Gozo, presided by magistrate Carol Peralta, issued a 24-hour decision to appoint Stagno Navarra as rector of the Abbazia di Sant Antonio degli Navarra, a foundation set up by the noble Cosmana Navarra for vast tracts of land she owned in Gozo.

The controversial decision had been taken without even notifying the Archdiocese of the hearing.

That case was resolved in 2010, and later on appeal in 2013: which cancelled the Peralta decision, giving the Archbishop the authority to appoint the Abbazia’s rector, which had until 1989 been a cleric.

Throughout 1992, the Church had sought to stop Stagno Navarra from transferring the vast lands of the Abbazia to Berracimp, a company owned by former magistrate Dennis Montebello and the lawyer Carmelo Galea. The Montebello family, Galea and Stagno Navarra’s heirs are today formally in business as Carravan Company.

The 1992 actions were technically ‘successful’ for the Church, given that Stagno Navarra was not legally eligible to register the lands in the name of any private company by not having the Archbishop’s formal appointment as Abbazia rector.

By the time these cases were fully resolved, in 2017 the Church and Carravan had already agreed to appoint Carravan’s lawyer Peter Valentino, as the Abbazia’s rector.

In 2019, the Abbazia started a transfer of the lands to Carravan: a 23,000sq.m tract at Għar Boffa in Qala for an annual €43,000 emphyteusis, a 27,000sq.m tract at Tas-Sajtun in Nadur for €35,500. In 2020, Carrvan registered €3 million in revenues (up from €362,000 the previous year).

Valentino was presented by Carravan alongside a cleric. “Both were considered worthy, but the Archbishop preferred not having a cleric involved in the administration of property not owned by the Church.  Dr Valentino’s nomination was therefore confirmed by a formal deed of agreement between both parties in 2017,” the Church told MaltaToday.

That formal agreement determined that the Church would receive the capital sum of €200,000 from the patrons, so that interest received on this sum would cover pious obligations, established by the foundress Cosmana Navarra, which are executed by the Church. “The patrons further bound themselves to increase this capital in future if the interest generated is not sufficient to cover these obligations,” the Church said.

Under Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Church also has changed its interpretation of the Abbazia’s constitution as an ecclesiastical benefice.

The issue of whether the Abbazia is lay or ecclesiastical is itself an unresolved matter, legally: different courts have recognised the Abbazia as either lay, or ecclesiastical, in separate sittings. Judge Gino Camilleri in 2010 decreed that the Abbazia was lay, having been founded by a lay person for her heirs; but in 2011, Judge Joseph Zammit McKeon decreed that the Abbazia was an ecclesiastical entity in a related case on the ownership of the lands.

“The land was not owned by the Church and any property belonging to this lay giuspatronato was not ecclesiastical property,” the Church said.

The deed of the Abbazia allows its ‘rector’ to grant parcels of the property in emphyteusis but not outright sale. “The Church has acted throughout in accordance with decisions of Malta’s courts and will continue to do so.”